“BET­TER THAN JURAS­SIC PARK”

GE­ORGE CHURCH is re­viv­ing the woolly mam­moth.

Bulletin - - Contents -

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.

By Mathias Plüss (in­ter­view) and Ping Zhu (il­lus­tra­tion)

Ge­orge Church, 63, is a molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist and pro­fes­sor at MIT and Har­vard Uni­ver­sity in the US. He is a pioneer of genome se­quenc­ing and re­mains one of the most in­no­va­tive minds in de­vel­op­ing new meth­ods of gene tech­nol­ogy.

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