A complicated debate

Credit: Getty

With Jurassic World hitting theaters, you’d think more people would have second thoughts about reintroducing historical creatures to modern worlds.

But you’d be wrong.

For example, there’s the Long Now Foundation. A San Francisco-based nonprofit, the Long Now Foundation is interested in “de-extincting” woolly mammoths. “For the past 200,000 years human beings have played an active role in causing extinction, changing the planet in an ignorant, blind way. Now we can play an active role in evolution,” the Foundation’s Ben Novak tells the BBC.

There’s no way to actually “re-introduce” woolly mammoths as they existed back into the wild. Cloning requires a living cell, and even mummified mammoths aren’t a viable source of them. But in April, scientists properly sequenced the entire genome of a woolly mammoth, an important step in “de-extincting” them.

“We can’t clone mammoths in the traditional sense,” Professor Beth Shapiro Shapiro, author of How to Clone a Mammoth, explained to the BBC. “But we can change the genome of an Asian elephant, the closest relative to the mammoth.”

It’s possible to create a sort of mammoth-elephant hybrid, Shapiro told NPR in May, “by editing the genome sequence of an elephant cell in a dish in a lab using new genome-editing technology, and swapping out bits of elephant sequence for the mammoth version of sequences that we think are important in making a mammoth look and act more like a mammoth than like an elephant.” However, she’s keen to discuss the ethical implications of such an act.

Elephants fare poorly in captivity, she says, and “much less in captivity for some crazy scientific experiment It’s extremely powerful technology. I don’t want to talk about my worries because I don’t want to put those ideas in bad people’s heads.”

Novak disagrees. “It’s like producing a safe-haven backup herd of elephants,” he told the BBC. “If elephants ever become really endangered, there’s that herd of mammoths … we can always turn those mutations back around and get them right back to [the] original elephant they started with.”

But to what end do people want to re-create mammoths, other than for the reason that it would be cool? (Which obviously it would be.)

The answer to that question is tied to the work Russian scientist Sergey Nimov has been doing since the late 1980s – introducing herbivores to Siberia. The herbivores graze on the vegetation in the tundra, in turn exposing the soil to the frigid Siberian air, which slows the release of carbon trapped there – carbon that, as you may have heard, contributes to global warming.

“There is a lot of carbon trapped in the Siberian permafrost, and if these animals slow down that melting, we can slow the release of that carbon, potentially slowing the rate of global warming,” Shapiro told the BBC.

It’s only been two months since scientists sequenced the mammoth’s genome, so we’re not likely to see any sins against God rambling around the Tundra anytime soon. But as more people like Novak argue strenuously for “de-extincting” mammoths, it’s going to become a progressively harder argument to ignore.