Maybe Let’s Not Try to Clone Wooly Mammoths Right Now

Photo: Daniel Eskridge/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Messing with megafauna usually doesn’t work out for the human parties involved, whether it’s a fictional island theme park overrun by killer dinosaurs or it’s Florida, where, in 1992, Hurricane Andrew released scores of exotic species held as pets, resulting in invasive Burmese pythons living in over 1,000 square miles of the state.

Into this legacy steps a company called Colossal, which plans to “jumpstart nature’s ancestral heartbeat” by cloning and re-introducing thousands of wooly mammoths in Siberia. Led by Harvard Medical School biologist George Church, the plan is to edit mammoth hair and tendencies into elephant DNA and produce mammoth embryos within several years.

There are potential benefits for the larger state of the world, if they can pull it off. Some researchers suggest that wooly mammoths helped transformed the now-mossy tundra into a fertilized grassland; if the Frankenstein version were able to achieve this feat again, the tundra could serve as a buffer against erosion and a potential carbon-dioxide sink to combat global warming. Colossal, which describes itself as “the de-extinction company,” also hopes the reanimation of the wooly mammoth could serve as a first step toward further genetic alterations to save endangered species on a planet threatened by biodiversity collapse by rewriting their DNA to allow them to adapt to a changing climate.

But as the New York Times notes, there are some obvious concerns with the ambitious venture:

If Colossal does manage to produce baby mammoth-like elephants, the company will face serious ethical questions. Is it humane to produce an animal whose biology we know so little about? Who gets to decide whether they can be set loose, potentially to change the ecosystems of tundras in profound ways?

… Heather Browning, a philosopher at the London School of Economics, said that whatever benefits mammoths might have to the tundra will need to be weighed against the possible suffering that they might experience in being brought into existence by scientists.

“You don’t have a mother for a species that — if they are anything like elephants — has extraordinarily strong mother-infant bonds that last for a very long time,” she said. “Once there is a little mammoth or two on the ground, who is making sure that they’re being looked after?”

Considering the recent controversy surrounding much simpler gain-of-function research, perhaps it’s best to leave this idea in the ground for now — or, even better, to actually put political resources toward preventing the
worst outcomes of the climate crisis rather than play around with deep adaptation schemes that intentionally riff on Jurassic Park.

Maybe Let’s Not Try to Clone Wooly Mammoths Right Now