Can we clone a Woolly Mammoth?

Think Jurassic Park was frightening? Try seeing a Woolly Mammoth walk the earth.

There are two sides to this question: one debates our actual scientific ability to clone one of natural history’s most formidable creatures. The other concerns the ethical dilemma that would surface.

Harvard scientist Dr George Church says that ‘it could happen within the next couple of years.’ But what is ‘it’ exactly? The creature that would be produced would not, in fact, be purely a woolly mammoth. Instead of re-creating the living organism, he wants to make a hybrid ‘mammophant’. Church uses the CRISPR precision gene editing tool to snip and splice in mammoth genes into the genome of the Asian Elephant (the woolly mammoth’s closest relative), giving it mammoth-like characteristics such as a shaggy coat, extra fat, and cold-resistant blood.

At the moment, Church says that they are trying to turn skin cells of the elephant into mammoth embryos: they would not be carried by an Asian elephant surrogate, due to its status endangered. The procedure would happen ex-vivo, or outside a living body. This ambitious feat is already under way, as Church’s experts are devising ways to grow hybrid animals inside artificial wombs – having already done so with mice.

However, some worry that the mammoth should not be resurrected at all. There are numerous obstacles, both social and ethical. Firstly, the mammoth is most probably a social animal, having travelled in herds. It is uncertain whether the mammoth would be able to survive alone, and how it might be treated by elephants that it will socialise with. There are numerous questions about whether it is morally right to bring into existence an animal that went naturally extinct with the end of the Ice Age. ‘Playing God’, or a version of that phrase which is universally compatible, would be unimaginable.

Though you might think, reading this, that maybe the possible resurrections from a bygone biological age might be unrelated to your life, you would be profoundly wrong. The CRISPR technique, very much a recent development, has been used also on human embryos. The first genetically modified human embryo was created very recently in a Chinese laboratory using CRISPR. The UK has recently passed a law condoning the production of GM embryos.

For those of you who might be unaware, genetically modified human embryos could have any genes, and therefore characteristics, as selected by the parents: hair colour, skin colour, brain development and competence, physical strength… the list is infinite. So this development in CRISPR and the effect it has had on the biological world is momentous.

In the terms of the woolly mammoth, then, those ethical dilemmas are carried forward into the human life.

Charlotte VII