Harvard genetics has been successful in inserting genes from extinct species for over three millennia into an elephant's DNA.
In ancient times, thousands of years ago, humanity lived with mammoths. During the last ice age, it was common for our ancestors to slaughter the woolly mammoth depicted in the image and enjoy its meat as food and also its bones as raw material for tools or works of art.
Human persecution and climate change eventually led the species to extinction some 3300 years ago. Now, for the first time in all of this time, woolly mammoth genes have come back to life in a Harvard University laboratory, embedded in the genome of a modern elephant.
Artistic conception of a woolly mammoth
Geneticist George Church, leader of the research, used an unprecedented technique that allowed the precise insertion of certain regions of the extinct animal's DNA into the genetic material of its closest relative. "We now have functional elephant cells with mammoth DNA inside them," Church told The Sunday Times. "We prioritize genes associated with cold resistance, including hairiness, ear size and subcutaneous fat," he explained. Originally from the tundra of North America and Eurasia, the species was perfectly adapted to the extreme cold of its habitat.
Mammoth carcass found on permafrost
It was thanks to the extremely low temperatures of the arctic regions that scientists had access to DNA, preserved inside carcasses in excellent condition. Frozen Arctic soil, known as permafrost, functions as a freezer, capable of preserving biological materials for thousands of years.
The sample used by the Harvard researchers comes from fossils found on Wrangel Island, the last woolly mammoth stronghold in the eastern Siberian Sea.
"We haven't published the study in a scientific journal yet because we still have more work to do, but we plan to publish it," Church said. At least three separate teams are trying to reconstruct the mammoth's complete genome to bring it back.
However, there are those who question the ethics of the enterprise. “We face the potential extinction of African and Asian elephants. Why bring another elephant back when we can't even keep those that aren't extinct around? ”Asks Alex Greenwood, an ancient DNA expert. He goes on: “What is the message? We can be as irresponsible to the environment as we want, and then we just go there and clone things back? ”