Will the woolly mammoth live again? | news

This is not science fiction. Recreating the woolly mammoth, a relative of the elephant that disappeared 4,000 years ago, is a serious project launched by the American company Colossal in the fall. And she barely gives herself four to six years to get there.

Instead of resurrecting a real mammoth, the team plans to use cells from the Asian elephant, a species that is 99.6% genetically similar to the woolly mammoth, and add ancient genes to them. “Originally, we wanted to clone woolly mammoths from well-preserved specimens, but their DNA was too degraded,” said researcher Eriona Hysolli, head of biological sciences at Colossal, during a mid-March presentation at the South By Southwest (SXSW) conference. In the United States. Therefore, a group of researchers led by renowned geneticist George Church from Harvard University in the United States turned to genetic engineering.

“We have isolated about fifty genes from the mammoth that will give the elephant resistance to cold,” explains Eriona Hysolli. Some effects will be invisible to normal mortals, but others will have more obvious effects, such as the addition of thick woolly mammoth fur.

Although the animal is presented as a woolly mammoth, it is technically more of a hybrid species, acknowledges Erion Hysolli.

But why mammoth?

Other species are also in Colossal’s field of vision, notably the extinct rhinoceros. Challenge: Use these animals to modify ecosystems, starting in Siberia, where similar work is already underway (but with other animals, such as bison), and where the company’s researchers have already studied specimens of woolly mammoths.

“We are only interested in species that can have an impact on the environment,” notes Ben Lamm, CEO of the company, during SXSW. The idea is that large animals can play a positive role in certain ecosystems, such as restoring the steppe in Siberia, and even slowing down the warming of permafrost, which would have a beneficial effect on global warming.

According to the company, a woolly mammoth would technically be a good candidate for this experiment because it is heavy enough to push snow into the ground and big enough to handle bushes that encroach on the steppe.

“The technologies we are developing to revive the woolly mammoth can also be used to save existing species,” adds Ben Lamm. In this way, the company could help reproduce species that have only a few living animals left, or even genetically improve species that are threatened with extinction to make them live in other ecosystems for which they are not adapted, for example, further than humans (what Ben Lamm calls it “species extension”).

The unknown impact these animals have on ecosystems is often cited as an argument against animal “extinction”, a term used to refer to the resurgence of extinct species.

While it is true that species have been introduced that have had negative impacts (like the rabbit in Australia), other more recent examples, however, have turned out to be positive, such as the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park in the United States, which have increased local biodiversity, recalls Colossal’s CEO.

The release of woolly mammoths will also be carried out in collaboration with groups involved in revitalizing ecosystems through the reintroduction of animal species. “This is not a problem that can be solved in the laboratory, so we are collaborating with groups that have been working in this area for more than a decade,” says Ben Lamm.

Committed to health and reproduction

Since its inception in September, Colossal has launched three labs in the United States and now has 50 genetic engineering employees. After receiving nearly $19 million in funding in September, the company told SXSW that it has received additional $75 million in funding, mostly from Silicon Valley investors.

Is it just the establishment of a thousand genetically modified elephants in Siberia that justifies such an investment? Of course not.

“All the technologies we develop can make a difference to human and animal health,” says Eriona Hysolli.

Colossal, for example, is developing technologies to create reproductive cells from other cell types. This gametogenesis would allow the creation of woolly mammoths from Asian elephants without removing their eggs, which is an invasive process. In humans, this artificial gametogenesis could, in particular, be used to create eggs in patients for whom ovarian aspiration is not (or no longer) an option (other companies are also developing similar technologies, but they won’t be ready for a few years: c In addition to the scientific pitfalls, there are many legal and ethical issues that need to be addressed first.)

The company also plans to develop an artificial womb to bring its embryos to term, which is important given that it wants to produce thousands of mammoths. In humans, “artificial wombs could be used for premature babies,” the head of the biological sciences department illustrates. Here, too, the company does not name the date of development of such technology.

The company is also developing next-generation genetic sequencing tools and tools to improve DNA editing (the company uses CRISPR to embed mammoth genes into elephant DNA), Ben Lamm said. “extinction”.

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