"Jurassic Park" imagined a future in which it was possible to bring dinosaurs back to life. Now, that fiction might become reality with the woolly mammoth.
These Ice Age creatures lived on several northern continents. They had a thick, furry coat that protected against the extreme cold. The shaggy animals went extinct about 4,000 years ago. However, the current revolution in genetics— might change that. This branch of science is also fighting aging, eradicating diseases and even allowing parents to pick out features they want in their babies.
In his book, "Woolly: The True Story Of The Quest To Revive One Of History's Most Iconic Extinct Species," Ben Mezrich explored the mammoth's possible comeback. Mezrich also explained why some people think the woolly mammoth could help to fight global warming.
National Geographic caught up with Mezrich at his home in Boston. He explained why some people think woolly mammoths could help to combat climate change —and the concerns behind these grand ambitions.
The idea of resurrecting a woolly mammoth sounds like something out of "Jurassic Park." Is it really happening? And how much of a revolution in science will this be?
It does sound like science fiction. But it's true! The stuff in "Jurassic Park" is now scientifically possible. We now have powerful genetic tools such as CRISPR, which is a revolution in the science of genetic engineering.
CRISPR allows us to place genes, or segments of DNA, inside living creatures. It used to be that we were reading DNA, but now we are at the point where we can write it too. DNA contains the instructions for how each part of the body works and is passed on from parents to children. By choosing which genes to add, we can try to create animals with specific characteristics.
The world in which we live is going to be very different in 30 years because of what's going on in laboratories right now. People talk about different kinds of technology, such as the Internet, artificial intelligence or robotics. I believe this is all going to be dwarfed by what’ is going on in biology. Once you can remake genes, build the building blocks of life, there's no telling what you can do.
The moving force behind the American effort to create a woolly mammoth is a geneticist named George Church. Describe him and the project he is leading.
He's definitely something right out of a Hollywood movie. He’ is almost 70,” with this enormous beard and halo of white hair. He grew up in the swamps outside of Tampa, Florida, raised by a single mother. Starting at the age of 12, George started to think he was someone who had come from the future. He thought it was his job to make this world into the world that he came from.
He's like the Einstein of today. He has invented faster ways of sequencing human genomes, which means mapping out sequences of DNA. His lab has been working for the Woolly Mammoth Project, a group that wants to bring back the woolly mammoth.
The other pole of this initiative is the Siberian steppe. Tell us about the father-son team, Sergei and Nikita Zimov, and the idea behind Pleistocene Park.
The big question is, why make a woolly mammoth? The answer happens to be in Russia. The Siberian plains are these vast tracts of land made up of permafrost, which have lost a lot of their animal populations. It didn't used to be like that.
The problem is, the icy tundra is this ticking time bomb. Trapped within the permafrost is more carbon than if we burned all the forests on Earth three times. As the world warms, we're getting closer to the point where the permafrost melts and this time bomb will go off. The carbon will be released, and trap more heat in the air, making global warming worse.
Sergei Zimov and his son, Nikita, have been running an experiment since the 1980’s where they roped off an area of the tundra and reintroduced animals from long ago, like reindeer, bison and Yakut horses. What they have discovered is that you can lower the temperature of the permafrost by as much as -9.5 degrees celsius (15 degrees Fahrenheit) just by reintroducing these animals. That's because these large herbivores encourage the growth of plains grasses. In turn, these light-colored grasses reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere like a mirror. This reduces the heat absorbed into the earth and thus minimizes temperatures —and reduces melting of permafrost.
I was surprised that there are enough woolly mammoths in the permafrost in Siberia to support a trade in ivory. Tell us about that and the indigenous Yakut people.
Woolly mammoths are showing up all the time as the permafrost slowly melts. The tusks are used for decoration and are worth about $250,000 dollars each. So there’ is a massive trade in mammoth ivory, especially in China, which is legal because it's not an endangered species. It is an extinct species.
Harvesting it is very dangerous, though. The Yakut go out in these boats across frozen water to get to these tiny islands where the carcasses are most plentiful, and dig up the tusks. They can supply a whole Yakut village's needs for a year, if they find one.
Give us a simple idea of the scientific challenges involved in creating a woolly mammoth—, and when it might happen.
The science is really cool. Frozen carcasses are brought up from the ice. You take a sample and sequence the genome. Once you've got the sequence, you choose the characteristics that are important to make a mammoth a mammoth. About 99 percent of their genome is similar to that of the Asian elephant. Church's lab believes that if a woolly mammoth mated with an Asian elephant, they would be able to have a baby.
First, you recreate the genes artificially, then place them into the embryo of an Asian elephant — the tiny group of cells that then grows into a baby. The embryo is put back into an Asian elephant. Then, the Asian elephant gives birth to the woolly mammoth.
Church's lab is also working on an artificial womb, which would hold the baby. The goal is to have the first baby mammoth in two to three years.
The idea of concocting new forms of life in laboratories may seem like an attempt to play God. What about the ethical— —issues?
That's a great question. You have to think about these things in a big way before you actually do them because the science can get ahead of deciding what's right or wrong. In this case, I believe— that bringing back an extinct species like the mammoth is less playing God than it is correcting something we did.
Scientists play God every day. When you attempt to cure cancer, for example, you’ are making decisions about life in a big way. The scariest thing is that there's no group overseeing this. There are labs all over the world doing things like this. Most scientists think there needs to be some oversight, whether it is from within the science community or from the government. It's difficult because there are many countries involved.
One of the shocks at the end of the book is when a Korean-Russian team actually find a frozen mammoth with blood still in its veins. Is that really true? How is their plan different from the American plan?
The Korean company Sooam Biotech was founded by a scientist who was disgraced for falsely claiming that he had cloned, or copied, human cells. He reinvented himself by creating this company that clones dogs. He is also attempting to bring back the woolly mammoth.
Supposedly, a Russian team they're working with found a woolly mammoth half-covered in ice that had quickly frozen long ago. It was in such good condition that, when they pulled it up, there was liquid blood.
Whether this is true or not is hard to confirm. The material has been hidden away in a secret vault at a Russian university. If this mammoth really is in such amazing condition that there's liquid blood, maybe you could clone this material and build a mammoth.
George and his team do not believe it’s possible. But who knows?