“BETTER THAN JURASSIC PARK”
GEORGE CHURCH is reviving the woolly mammoth.
Mr. Church, you want to resurrect the mammoth, right?
No, not quite. We’re taking individual mammoth genes and splicing them into the genetic material of Asian elephants.
That means you’re creating an elephantmammoth hybrid?
In a sense, yes. We call it a mammophant in layman’s terms.
Would it also be possible to clone mammoths directly?
The woolly mammoth died out four thousand years ago. Even the best specimens dug out of the permafrost have sustained damage to their genetic material. But, ultimately, that’s not the real problem: With our technology, we can cobble together and synthesize damaged DNA on a computer – so in theory,
we could recreate the entire mammoth genome. But we don’t want to do that. We want to create a creature that is adapted to modern ecosystems.
Which genes do you want to insert into the elephant genome?
We’re currently talking about approximately fifty genes that primarily have to do with cold resistance. This means genes that code for a thicker layer of fat, smaller ears, long woolly hair and blood vessels that are adapted to the cold. Moreover, we want to make the mammophant resistant to certain viruses and give them smaller tusks to reduce pressures from hunting. We’ve proven with pigs that this technology works.
What would mammophants be good for?
On the one hand, we want to help the endangered Asian elephants by adapting them genetically and opening up massive new habitats, the tundra and the taiga.
And on the other hand?
We want to optimize the northern ecosystems. We’re talking here about 1,400 gigatons of greenhouse gases that are threatening to leach out of the ground if warming continues. The Russian geophysicist Sergey Zimov and his team have demonstrated that the soil temperature can be cooled by twenty degrees by letting grasses replace trees and having herds of grazers live and feed there. As a result of the animals’ presence, the insulating snow layer is broken in winter and more heat is reflected in summer.
Don’t species adapt themselves to changing ecosystems as part of evolution? Is human intervention really needed?
Some ecosystems change too quickly, or they contain species with characteristics that run counter to human objectives – take the massive spread of zebra mussels or rabbits, for example. In the case of cold deserts, we need the right species of herbivores with their specific movements to maximize carbon sequestration in the soil.
How many of these animals will it take?
A good goal would be 80,000 specimens. Mammophants would already be useful in low densities because they push over trees and could make the habitat accessible for other grazers such as caribou, bison and horses.
What’s the most difficult part of your project?
Growing tens of thousands of mammophants in the lab. We’re working on an artificial womb of sorts to grow the embryos in. This way we can spare the existing elephant population because we wouldn’t need any females to carry the mammophants. We’re currently developing the process with mice. The difference is that mice have a gestation period of twenty days, while that of elephants is 22 months.
When will be the first mammophants be released into the wild?
In 20 years at the earliest. It takes six years of research and development, two years of gestation and 12 years of maturing until the mammophant reaches a size where it could be released.
You’re conjuring up memories of John Hammond in “Jurassic Park,” who created living dinosaurs in his theme park and it went dramatically wrong ...
Pleistocene parks already exist and they’re better than Jurassic Park, because they don’t include carnivores and work on re-creating ecosystems instead of entertainment.