A mammoth debacle

September 14, 2021 • 11:00 am

As I wrote this morning in the Hili dialogue, and as Carl Zimmer describes in the NYT article below (click on screenshot), a team of scientists and entrepreneurs has formed a company called Colossal that aims to “bring back the woolly mammoth.” They raised fifteen million dollars in funding to do this job (cf. P. T. Barnum). The motivating force for this endeavor is well-known Harvard geneticist George Church, who for years has said that a “resurrected” woolly mammoth, constructed using DNA sequence from mammoths frozen in the permafrost, was right around the corner.

Well, the corner hasn’t been turned, and, if I don’t miss my guess, it won’t be.  This project is fraught with so many problems that the likelihood of producing a woolly mammoth is close to zero.

In fact it IS zero, because they’re not going to resurrect that extinct creature. What they are doing is making a genetically modified Asian elephant by inserting into its genome a maximum of sixty mammoth genes that they think differentiate the modern species from the extinct one: genes that involve hairiness, cold tolerance, amount of fat, and so on. What they’d get would be a genetic chimera, an almost entirely Asian elephant but one that is hairier, chunkier, and more tolerant of cold. That is NOT a woolly mammoth, nor would it behave like a woolly mammoth, for they’re not inserting behavior genes.

There’s more below:

Further, a lot of other genes differ between a mammoth and an Asian elephant. What guarantee is there that the inserted mammoth genes would be expressed correctly, or even work at all in concert with the Asian elephant developmental system?

But it gets worse. Since you can’t implant a transgenic embryo into an elephant mom (we don’t know how to do that, and we would get just one or two chances), Church had this bright idea:

Initially, Dr. Church envisioned implanting embryos into surrogate female elephants. But he eventually soured on the idea. Even if he could figure out in vitro fertilization for elephants — which no one has done before — building a herd would be impractical, since he would need so many surrogates.

Instead, Dr. Church decided to make an artificial mammoth uterus lined with uterine tissue grown from stem cells. “I’m not making a bold prediction this is going to be easy,” he said. “But everything up to this point has been relatively easy. Every tissue we’ve gone after, we’ve been able to get a recipe for.”

An artificial mammoth uterus? Seriously? If you think that’s gonna work, I have some land in Florida I’d like to sell you. Of course, if you’re going to breed these things, you’d have to make two of them of opposite sexes. Could they even do that?

And beside this, there are all the ethical questions about releasing a large number of chimeric elephants into Siberia. That, itself, is unethical; Lord knows what they’d do to the ecosystem (my view is that, if they even succeeded in creating these things, they’d die off within a generation or so). From the article:

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?

“There’s tons of trouble everyone is going to encounter along the way,” said Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist at the University of California Santa Cruz and the author of “How to Clone a Mammoth.”

. . . .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?”

My opinion of this project is expressed more tersely by geneticist and author Adam Rutherford:

And he goes on to explain why.

But let’s get the take of a real expert on mammoths, Victoria “Tori” Herridge, a paleontologist and writer at London’s Natural History Museum who’s written extensively about this project. Her opinion is pretty much the same as mine and Rutherford’s.  Here’s the first tweet of a long thread in which, while expressing admiration for George Church, she simply takes the project apart. I’d recommend you go through what she says if you have interest in this project.

Moreover, now, as opposed to the artificial mammoth uterus idea, the company says they will implant the egg (derived perhaps from a stem cell, something that has been done only with mice so far) into an AFRICAN ELEPHANT. Most zoos don’t keep that species because it’s big and dangerous, as well as endangered.

Well, either way: surrogate elephant mom or surrogate mammoth uterus, it’s a wash.

34 thoughts on “A mammoth debacle

  1. Michael Crichton, as written for his character Ian Malcom:

    “Scientists are actually preoccupied with accomplishment. So they are focused on whether they can do something. They never stop to ask if they should do something.”

    Obviously a broad brush, but I think it applies here. I see no good that can come from this effort even on the miniscule chance that it can succeed.

    African elephant adolescents rely on adults to guide them on behavior. Villages in Africa have been invaded by elephant teens gone wild, stomping crops and people (thanks to the ivory poachers who kill the adults who would teach the adolescents to behave.) How would the “mammoths’ get this guidance if they are novel?

  2. If you think that’s gonna work, I have some land in Florida I’d like to sell you.

    Dang, a few swampy land scams in the 20th century, and some people will never let you forget. We don’t do that down here anymore. (And if you believe that, I’ve got a bridge from Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.)

  3. To keep in mind how ridiculous it is to call the proposed critter a woolly mammoth, consider if we wanted to bring back just a 40,000 year-old Asian elephant instead. Would the genetic differences between it and the current species be more than sixty genes? I’m not a geneticist, but I bet it would be. His methodology probably wouldn’t even reproduce an ancient version of an extant elephant, let alone a species that diverged from them 800,000 years ago like a mammoth.

    The most annoying thing about this for me is that I really want to see more genetic discovery and analysis on these species as well as others. Absolutely, let’s expand on our ability to collect and analyze ancient DNA.But this…this is more of a publicity stunt than it is science.


  4. Why – why would anyone even think this is an idea worth pursuing? If we’re building external uteri – why not focus on making a human one (if it were in the realm of possibility)? I don’t think that is a great idea personally – but at least an argument could be made for the utility of such research.

    1. Yeah, it’s a bit of a “Spiderman 2” moment. Villain wants to achieve controllable fusion (hard!), so he first creates sentient powerful AI (uhhhh…not hard?) to help him control it.

      If you can create functional artificial wombs in order to incubate your mammoth, helpful hint, the mammoth isn’t the newsworthy breakthrough.

  5. What a waste of money. What is the purpose of this? “Arctic conditions” aren’t going to be around much longer on this planet anyway. It’s a vanity project by a bunch of glory seekers. Why not spend the money trying to save some of the critically endangered species that are not yet extinct?

  6. I’ll be so pissed if they spend $15,000,000 growing more hair on an elephant while I’m stuck putting sunscreen on my scalp.

  7. What about creating a Tiktaalik-like creature or other transitional forms from fish-like to amphibian-like vertebrates? Sure we don’t have the genes but this should not discourage the genetic tinkerers (ADN/ARN artists?).

    I see advantages to that. Like no need of a monstrous artificial uterus and the ethical questions may be somewhat less problematic with fish-salamander animals. Moreover, they would be far less cumbersome in size than pseudo-mammoths.

  8. Let me take the side of Colossal. Who could have possibly imagined that Charles Darwin, when he sailed off on the Beagle, thought he would accomplish anything useful. Even projects that fail, if conducted by intelligent people, generally come up with new and ultimately useful information. Also, it would be quite a feat if a partial ecological equivalent to the mammoth could be produced. These days $15 million is pocket money.
    Regarding ethics, one does not know how many arctic species of plants and animals had commensal relations with mammoths and today are on the brink of extinction because the pachyderm’s demise, perhaps ultimately from human overhunting at the end of the Pleistocene. We doubt that Canada or Russia would even permit herds of arctic-adapted elephants, but it would be interesting to know how they, and presumably mammoths, impacted the organization of far north ecosystems.

    1. Good points though perhaps the idea that the fact that we can’t see the ends of scientific inquiry gives this idea (or any) a pass is fraught with problems. Your list of ethical issues is a bit short (what of the animals themselves – should we doing this to them?) but the comment I have is on this;

      We doubt that Canada or Russia would even permit herds of arctic-adapted elephants, but it would be interesting to know how they, and presumably mammoths, impacted the organization of far north ecosystems.

      We can’t know that even in principle; the modern artic ecosystem is not the same as the one the Mammoths faced. We’ll never know how these animals will impact Pleistocene flora and fauna because many of them no longer exist. The only thing we’ll learn is how these franken-elephants impact modern ecosystems. Introducing a non-native species can tell us much about an ecosystem. But is it worth the risk?

    2. If it at all works, then its still an ethical problem. But I don’t think it will work. We can learn plenty by making transgenic organisms in more tractable subjects like mice or rabbits. Trying to make transgenic elephants is just an attention-getting stunt.
      The whole thing reminds me of the quack doctor (I think he was from Italy) who promised that he would develop the technology to do head transplants on people with terminal diseases. Other than doing some experiments that involved murdering some poor mammals, including monkeys, it of course went nowhere.

  9. A side point, but in one of the tweets she says the peak mammoth population of Eurasia estimated to be around 200 million. I have to make a closer look at the article she links, because I find that number very hard to believe. Since the regions where they really flourished are only the minority of the continent, that would mean the suitable regions were practically crowded with them.

  10. 200M sounds like quite a lot indeed – but it appears they were fairly plentiful. There are businesses in China (PRC) which carve them for a living now the (thankfully) ivory market isn’t what it used to be. They use found mammoth tusks from Siberia and it is quite a business.

    An aside – in Japan one is allowed to traffic in (antique) ivory but a recent DNA investigation proved a large % of ivory wasn’t quite as “antique” as claimed. I have a name seal from living there – 100% plastic. 🙂
    One of the biggest ivory users is the US – gun handles are some exception to the ivory restriction (thanks again, NRA).

  11. Has anyone thought there might be more of an environment for a passenger pigeon, an ivory-billed woodpecker, or a carolina parakeet instead?

  12. “At any rate, I had no idea that “squaw” wasn’t a Native American word”
    But it is. You linked a Nez Perce article, which claimed “The specific term does not have an indigenous linguistic equivalence..”
    It probably was not used by the Nez Perce and other Western tribes. But it was certainly used by the Eastern Tribes speaking Algonkian languages, and is still used to indicate a young woman.
    “Algonkian speakers, in both Indian and English, still say words like ‘nidobaskwa’=a female friend, ‘manigebeskwa’=woman of the woods, or ‘Squaw Sachem’=female chief. When Abenaki people sing the Birth Song, they address ‘nuncksquassis’=‘little woman baby’.”

    It is interesting how activists on this and other woke subjects invent their own etymology to conform to their views.

  13. Oh geezer, do I have to mention JurassicPark here? Here’s my comment and I’d really love to have some professional feedback on this: there are some species who are threatened due to human activity, but there are also others whose time has simply coming to fade away. How do we determine which ones those are? And what could possibly be the benefit of having a whole herd of mammoths? I could understand one or two for research purposes.

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