January 20, 2019

Bring the Woolly Mammoth Back to Life

“Around ten years ago, Stewart Brand, the founder of the “Whole Earth Catalog,” and George Church, a Harvard geneticist, met in Boston. Brand had an interest in using genetic technology for conservation, and when Church said that he read and wrote DNA, Brand told me, “that got my attention.” Reading DNA had been done before, but writing DNA was something new. The two hit it off and have been collaborating on a project to resurrect the woolly mammoth, the giant Arctic elephant that went extinct ten thousand years ago. Church is a pioneer in genetic technology—he helped develop the crispr-Cas9 technology that a researcher in China recently used on the world’s first genetically edited newborns—and, in his lab, scientists are working on bringing the prehistoric pachyderm back from extinction. The process would involve adding certain mammoth genetic adaptations, like a long, dense pelt and layers of insulating fat, to the DNA of Asian elephants, which share more than ninety-nine per cent of their DNA with their extinct cousins. Church and Brand have a vision of herds of future mammoths grazing the steppes of the far north.

Church’s woolly mammoth research is just one of several de-extinction projects—there are about ten underway now—that aim to use genetics to restore lost species. In her book “The Re-Origin of Species,” the Swedish science journalist Torill Kornfeldt travels the world meeting the scientists and conservationists involved in this movement. In California, she talks with Ben Novak, a scientist obsessed with bringing back the passenger pigeon—a bird that once travelled in flocks that were so giant and dense, Novak tells her, that they “swept through the landscape, with the same effect as forest fires.” In upstate New York, a researcher is working toward restoring the American chestnut, which was decimated by blight in the late eighteen-hundreds. Until then, chestnuts were so prevalent in the eastern half of the United States that, when their white blossoms fell in the spring, the hillsides looked like they were covered in snow; in the fall, their sweet, starchy nuts served as a free, abundant harvest. At Australia’s Sea Simulator aquarium, resurrection scientists are working on coral, which faces an existential threat from the rapid warming and acidifying of ocean waters. These researchers want to help coral avoid extinction by “trying to nudge evolution,” imbuing them with traits that will allow them to survive the hotter oceans of the future.”

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