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Mammoth DNA could save elephants from extinction (Wired UK)

March 23, 2015 1:49 PM
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Genetic researchers at Harvard University have merged the DNA of an ancient woolly mammoth with those of an elephant's genetic code, making it possible for the ancient beast's genes to live on in the elephants of today.

Headed by professor of genetics at Harvard University, George Church, the team of researchers applied a new technique that let them make precise edits to 14 cells of the elephant's DNA. This allowed them to insert genes for bigger ears, furriness and extra fat beneath skin -- which differentiate mammoths from elephants -- into the latter's genetic code.

Mammoths, whose closest relative are the Asian elephant, have been extinct for more than 3,000 years. But found preserved under permafrost in the Arctic Ocean, scientists were able to extract genes for use in this experiment from frozen mammoths.

While this experiment is scientifically astounding, the project has fuelled intense debate within the scientific community. Church and those involved in the Woolly Mammoth revival project advocate that revival could create new mammoths "capable of repopulating the vast tracts of tundra and boreal forest in Eurasia and North America". They assert that instead of making exact replicas of extinct woolly mammoths, the goal is to allow Asian elephants to adapt to living in the colder climates of the tundra. They also say that reinstating a woolly mammoth-like elephant into the ecosystem could help combat climate change.

"Elephants are currently in danger as they overlap with human populations," Church tells WIRED.co.uk. "If they could be readapted to places of minus 50 degrees centigrade, where there is low human density, they would stand a higher chance of survival."

Not everyone is convinced, however. Dwarf elephant expert and palaeobiologist at the Natural History Museum, Tori Herridge questioned both the logistics and ethics of the project. "It's one of those projects that's so exciting that we don't have a serious debate about it," she tells WIRED.co.uk.

"Mammoths would have had a role in maintaining the ecosystem, but we don't know the complex dynamics. It's an open-ended idea as mammoths weren't alone [in the tundra]," argues Herridge, while pointing out that other animals would have also contributed to the area's ecosystem.

Herridge's concern lies in the possible repercussions that such experimentation will have on living elephants, used as surrogate mothers. "We already know that elephants are not good in captivity. This experiment would ask them to be the surrogate of something entirely new. For an elephant pregnancy lasts two years, and it might not be successful," says Herridge. "It's important to ask if the final outcome is worth the potential suffering."

Nonetheless, such issues are being considered by Church and his team. Although Church has not ruled out the possibility of using a elephant surrogate, he asserts the need to take the experiment slowly, and to find alternatives which would not harm living elephants.

Artificial wombs and experimenting with organs in culture are options that he and his team put before the use of elephant surrogates.

As the ethical debate rages, Herridge points out that if surrogate elephants are to be used to produce this woolly mammoth-like species, the wider benefits to elephant populations and humanity would have to be meticulously assessed beforehand. "If you compare the time it will take to produce a synthetic mammoth population to manage the ecosystem to how long it takes to gestate a baby, it seems unrealistic," she says.

However, over in the US, Church points that his project is still in its infancy, with a research paper yet to be published. And as opposed to resurrecting extinct species, the question lies in enhancing current elephant species in order to afford them a better chance of survival.

"This is about conserving living elephants. If you have a cold-resistant elephant, then maybe they have a better chance against extinction," says Church.

Source: wired.co.uk

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