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May 8, 2017 | by  | in Super Science Trends |
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Super Science Trends: A Mammoth Undertaking

The initiative to resurrect the extinct woolly mammoth is, appropriately enough, back in the news again. Its chief campaigner is Harvard professor George Church, and while he has claimed that he and his team are “two years away” from a reborn mammoth since 2014, it’s now increasingly more likely to happen. This is thanks in part to the development of CRISPR, a precise gene-editing technique that can literally cut-and-paste genes into DNA.

Rather than bring a genetically “pure” mammoth back from the dead, Church now intends to use a CRISPR-based shortcut, using the DNA harvested from frozen mammoth carcasses uncovered in Siberia. Mammoth traits like small ears, subcutaneous fat, and fur will now be coded into an Asian elephant embryo (their closest living relative), thereby creating a hybrid “mammophant.” This plan takes a cue from Jurassic Park, where the “dinosaurs” are actually theme park pastiches cobbled together from dino DNA and a bunch of close-enough species, like crocodiles, birds, and frogs.

The resulting embryo would then presumably be implanted into a female Asian elephant, but conservationists aren’t keen on that idea, as Asian elephants are an endangered species and they would rather those girls were popping out more elephants, not lab-made Franken-pachyderms. Back in February, Church proposed the creation of giant artificial wombs that would carry the mammophants to term. This was met with scoffs from the scientific community, saying that such a thing was science fiction. But faster than you can say “ask and ye shall receive,” it was announced on April 25 that a team at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia had been developing exactly that.

Dubbed “Biobags”, they sport an electrolyte solution that mimics amniotic fluid and an oxygenator tube that functions as an umbilical cord. So far they have successfully been able to gestate (but not deliver) fetal sheep, to the point where one could breathe unassisted like an au naturel fetus would. The hope is that they could eventually be used to bring premature human infants to term, but order one in custom XXXL size and you could have your baby mammoth, assuming it works flawlessly through a 22-month gestation to deliver a 200-pound infant.

But if we get to the point where we have a herd of baby mammoths, where would they all live? Fortunately, there’s a home ready made for them, they just have to help in the redecorating. Up in a northeastern pocket of Siberia is Pleistocene Park, a Russian geoengineering project founded in 1996 by ecologist Sergey Zimov. The park attempts to revert the forest habitat back to a steppe environment, like it had been at the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago, using all-natural means.

The reasoning is thus: large herbivores, such as elephants, rhinoceros, and buffalo are ecosystem engineers. They graze on brush and grasses while uprooting trees and trampling seedlings, which prevents forests from growing and skews the environment towards a grassland biome. Or, if you’re above the Arctic Circle, a steppe or tundra. These environments are perfect for the creation of permafrost, which seals in CO2 and methane from the atmosphere and compacts it into the Earth over several snows. Essentially, it’s all-natural terraforming, and it would aid in undoing man-made climate change, capturing the greenhouse gases created by industry and the present melting of ancient ice shelves. The one existing park is currently home to wild horses, reindeer, musk oxen, and European bison, among others, with a resurrected mammoth or ten being a stretch goal that could both speed up their experiment and create some much needed buzz (and funding) for the whole venture.

So there’s your future news: resurrected woolly mammoths are going to forcibly terraform Russia into ending climate change. And that is probably the best sentence I will ever type.

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