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Lab-grown woolly mammoths might only be a couple years away

The science-fiction of Michael Crichton's best-selling book, Jurassic Park, may soon become science-fact as researchers get closer to resurrecting one of Earth's most famous prehistoric beasts.

The last of the great woolly mammoths met their extinction nearly 4,000 years ago, but Harvard geneticist George Church and his research team think it may only be a few years until the animal makes a soft return as a genetic hybrid.

“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” Church told the Guardian last month.

“Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years,” he added.

woolly mammoth

Woolly mammoth family (Photo/Aunt_Spray/iStock/Thinkstock)

Church and his team have already made several advancements using the CRISPR gene-editing technique with 45 mammoth traits successfully spliced into the genome of the Asian elephant.

"We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits,” Church said in an February interview with New Scientist. “The list of edits affects things that contribute to the success of elephants in cold environments."

Church said the team has already identified the edits regarding small ears, subcutaneous fat, hair and blood.

The "de-extinct" the woolly mammoth project started in 2015, but several major discoveries helped expand interest. After the 2010 unearthing of a mammoth specimen preserved in the Siberian ice, the real possibility for de-extinction sparked intrigue among scientists at Harvard and the University of Chicago.

In 2013, the discovery of another well-preserved mammoth specimen provided genetic researchers with a way to decipher the Pleistocene creature's DNA.

Church's research could also benefit the endangered Asian elephant. The status of the elephant has also raised ethical concerns in the scientific community, but according to New Scientist, Church has no intention of using a live elephant as a surrogate for the hybrid embryo.

Church and his team hope to use an artificial womb and grow the hybrid in a laboratory, a process that could take years if the technology existed.

The team was able to grow a mouse embryo in an artificial womb for 10 days, just half of its gestation period, according to the Guardian. In order to achieve the full gestation of the elephant calf, the team would need to achieve a full 660-day gestation period, a process that is currently achievable.

“We’re testing the growth of mice ex-vivo. There are experiments in the literature from the 1980s but there hasn’t been much interest for a while,” Church told the Guardian. “Today we’ve got a whole new set of technology and we’re taking a fresh look at it.”

While many people have raised important ethical questions about the process of bringing extinct animals back, what impacts they could have or why anyone would want to do it in the first place, Church told the Guardian there could be several benefits to both the Asian elephant and to the environment.

According to Church, woolly mammoths could help prevent the melt of permafrost and the subsequent release of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

“They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in,” Church said. “In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow.”