scientists are literally cloning wooly mammoth elephant hybrids to turn loose in the Arctic!

This is so fucking cool that I thought it was an April Fool’s Day prank:

Scientists hope to create a genetically engineered elephant-mammoth hybrid and send it to the Arctic to prevent a so-called “methane time-bomb,” which could cause widespread environmental devastation.

The team at Harvard University believes the hardy animals could one day be released in the vast tundra and boreal stretches of North America and Eurasia. They plan to publish their first paper on the subject in the coming months, The Telegraph reported.

Oh god, this is amazing. Even the language used sounds like the explication from some scientist in a sci-fi horror movie, before he gets killed in the second act:

The creature, sometimes referred to as a “mammophant”, would be partly elephant, but with features such as small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood. The mammoth genes for these traits are spliced into the elephant DNA using the powerful gene-editing tool, Crispr.

In fact we’ve already spliced the mammoth cells into elephant cells! Now we just need to figure out the phenotype and figure out a way to raise an embryo without a mama elephant (there are so few elephants left that we can’t risk it if the baby turns into Jeff Goldblum from The Fly and chews its way out of his mama like an alien).

“Just making a DNA change isn’t that meaningful,” says Church. “We want to read out the phenotypes.” To do that, the team needs to figure out how to take the flat hybrid cells from a petri dish and coax them into becoming specialized tissues–such as blood cells or liver organoids–then test to see if they behave properly. For example, do the mammoth hair genes lead to hair that’s the right color, length, and woolliness?

If those tests go well, the team hopes to turn the elephant/mammoth skin cells into hybrid embryos that can be grown in artificial wombs, devices that allow for pregnancies outside of an animal’s uterus. Artificial wombs are pretty speculative at this point, but the alternative–implanting the hybrids into the wombs of female elephants–is unsavory to animal rights activists as well as geneticists. “It’s going to be more humane and easier if we can set up hundreds of [embryos] in an incubator and run tests,” says Church.

LyubaDailyTelegraph
best preserved mammoth baby ever, and just about the cutest corpse I’ve ever seen, “Lyuba,” 2012 – The Daily Telegraph

But why, some might ask, are we sending the new “mammophant” species (oooh, good band name) into the arctic? Doesn’t that seem extreme, when we could just maybe focus more on preserving the elephants we’ve got?

Apparently it’s as much about helping us as it is about helping them. We need an army of mammophants to stomp that ice back down so the carbon can’t get out… literally.

The tundra and much of the taiga – the sometimes swampy coniferous forest of high northern latitudes – were once a grassland ecosystem known as the “mammoth steppe.” It was home to abundant grazing herds of antelope, deer, caribou, horses, bison, and Woolly Mammoths. At the end of the Pleistocene these herds vanished leading to an ecosystem conversion away from abundant grasses toward a more shrub dominated community.

The tundra ecosystem that arose in the absence of these large grazing species is now affected by and contributing to human-driven climate change. Without large animals to compact and scrape away thick insulating layers of winter snow, extreme winter cold does not penetrate the soil. That fact, coupled with significantly warmer summers, accelerates the melting of the permafrost and the release of greenhouse gases that have been trapped for millennia.  From a global carbon perspective, the carbon release from melting of the world’s permafrost is equivalent to burning all the world’s forests 2 ½ times.

The work of Dr. Sergey Zimov shows promise that tundra can be converted back to grasslands with the introduction of grazers even 10,000 years after their disappearance. The introduction of grazers to tundra generates a nutrient cycle that allows grasses to out-compete the tundra flora, converting the ecosystem in a manner that then favors the persistence of grazers and grasses. Not only do arctic grasslands support higher biodiversity and abundance, there is building evidence that the grazing, compaction and disturbance effects of these larger herbivores enables the deeper freezing of the permafrost during the winter months.  The grasses then insulate the permafrost from melting during summer months – further preventing the release of greenhouse gases.

This is interesting, because I’d never thought of the Arctic as being a place that could support a lot of plant and animal life. But I guess I’m not thinking of places like Siberia and Alaska as being properly “Arctic,” because to be honest, I’m kind of stupid.

And as for why the mammoths might be better at this grazing and stomping than caribou, reindeer, bison, and other ruminants that we’ve still got and could promote without all the gene splicing, I’m guessing it’s not only for their size, but because mammoths would be more likely to convert shrub land into grassland–they’d uproot trees and eat all the tall sturdy things first, the kind that little antelope mouths can’t get at. And thus they’d leave only the more ecologically-efficient grass behind, in the process giving grasses a better toehold to grow more. In effect, they’d be farming their own food by plowin’ up the snow with their big elephant feet, eating all the weeds, and fertilizing the crops with their dung. I can only imagine it, but I assume mammoth droppings are a breathtaking sight to behold!

Grotte_de_Rouff_mammut
GROTTE DE FONT-DE-GAUME, FRANCE, National Geographic. They almost look fake, don’t they?

It’s also interesting because if you look at a timeline of global temperatures over the past 20,000 years, it kind of looks like this plan in reverse. Things really started to get warmer around 15,500 BCE, right around the time humans were doing a lot of hunting of ruminants (e.g. the time of the Lascaux Cave paintings). And it accelerated even more rapidly around the time that humans arrived in the Americas, which is around when the wooly rhino went extinct, in about 13,000 BCE. And we finally got to around normal temperatures (pre-1961, not this new global warming shit) around 9000 BCE, when the horse went extinct in the Americas. The more big grazing animals we drove to extinction, the warmer the planet got, or at least there’s some strong correlation.

I’d always assumed that this acceleration in temperatures was due to agriculture starting up in this timeframe, causing humans to repurpose the landscape in ways that caused massive ecological changes in the flora, e.g. in deforesting Ireland and Britain and turning the Sahara into desert. If anything, I thought, the methane produced by all those ruminants would have contributed to global warming, not cooling, and thus the animals’ extinctions would pulled the reins in a bit on the wild plant murders. But apparently I didn’t factor in that unlike humans in the past 10,000 years or so, big hairy beasts like the mammoth were keeping the cycle of life in check by promoting the right kinds of grasslands, as well as allowing cool air to get in under the snow and keep the ice pack icy. So their ecological footprint was a carbon neutral one, despite the methane.

WrangelIslandFun Fact: the last mammoths died not long ago at all, in about 2000 BCE on a little island called Wrangel Island, where they got stuck when the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska became mostly sea. That’s not long ago at all, even on the scale of human civilization: if the Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu had been able to send a pack of troops to Siberia and cart a mammoth back to be buried with him in the Great Pyramid of Giza, that mammoth would have been rotting in an antechamber for over 500 years before the last of her descendants died out back on Wrangel Island. (And that’s assuming they would’t have mummified the mammoth, which they probably would have done, so… no rot! But can you imagine pulling out a mammoth’s brain through its nose?)

By the end, though, the dwindling mammoth population was pretty sick from inbreeding, and may not even have died from being hunted to death as was once thought:

In fact, the Wrangel mammoth’s genome carried so many detrimental mutations that the population had suffered a “genomic meltdown,” according to Rebekah Rogers and Montgomery Slatkin of the University of California, Berkeley. Analyzing the Swedish team’s mammoth data at the gene level, they found that many genes had accumulated mutations that would have halted synthesis of proteins before they were complete, making the proteins useless, they report Thursday in PLOS Genetics.

This is a kind of a scary thought, when you consider how hard it will be to make even a few mammophants in a lab. I am definitely on Team Mammophant! But we better make sure to get enough of those suckers out on the ice, and not clone them all from the same sets of genes. If there’s one thing this world don’t need, it’s a Cletus the Slack-Jawed Mammophant.

D. M. Collins

D. M. Collins is a journalist and writer based in Los Angeles.

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