Illustration of a late Pleistocene landscape in northern Spain with woolly mammoths (Public Library of Science)
A pioneering geneticist, a team of Harvard scientists, and a genius Russian geoengineer walk into the Siberian tundra. Their common goal? To repopulate the Arctic with ancient herbivores and prevent the release of greenhouse gases from thawed permafrost.
Around 10,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, through a combination of overhunting by prehistoric humans and changing environmental conditions, the woolly mammoth headed into extinction. The last remaining handful lived on Wangrel Island off the Arctic coast of Russia just 3,000 years ago, leaving behind a number of almost-entirely intact specimens. Could it be possible to use those remains to bring the woolly mammoth back?
Geneticist George Church, one of the founders of the Human Genome Project, decided to apply the DNA sequencing techniques on a new level. In 2012, he brought together a group of Harvard scientists with a plan to use frozen material to sequence the mammoth genome. He believed that with the resulting cellular codes, he could synthesize mammoth cells. Through the use of synthetically created mammoth DNA and the genetic engineering tool, CRISPR, Church has been on his way to implanting these hybrid cells into living elephant cells. If Church and his team are successful, the resurrected mammoths could be the key to a Russian scientist’s attempt at slowing the permafrost’s thaw across the Arctic.
Church joins author Ben Mezrich—who documented the quest in Woolly: The True Story of the De-extinction of One of History’s Most Iconic Creatures (Atria Books)—in a conversation with Scott Stossel, editor of The Atlantic magazine. Listen in during a fascinating evening that examines battling polar bears, extreme weather conditions, and the ethical quandary of cloning extinct animals. Can we right the wrongs of our ancestors who hunted the woolly mammoth to extinction—and at what cost?
In February, George Church predicted that the production of a hybrid elephant/mammoth embryo may be as little as a few years away. Read his interview with the Telegraph—which also contains a photo of a stunningly well-preserved baby mammoth.
S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)