Revive the mammoth to fight against global warming?

The American start-up Colossal announced Monday that it had raised $ 15 million to “resuscitate” mammoths in order to protect permafrost, those parts of the soil that never thaw. This old dream of genetic engineering, which consists above all in manipulating elephant genes in order to save the climate… is debatable.

He has dreamed of bringing mammoths back to life for several years . Now George Church, an American genetic engineering star who works at Harvard University, wants to recreate them to fight global warming. Just that.

With the American entrepreneur Ben Lamm, he announced, Monday, September 13, to have raised 15 million dollars to found the start-up Colossal and to tackle the resurrection of these mammals, which disappeared 4,000 years ago.

The mammoth more dead than alive

The project that George Church sold to investors as diverse as Thomas Hull, the boss of the production studio Legendary Entertainment (behind films like “Jurassic Park” and “Godzilla”), the investment fund Animal Capital or still the Winklevoss brothers, famous for having originally supported Facebook, seems simple.

It consists of crossing the DNA of an Asian elephant with that of the woolly mammoth in order to bring the latter back to life and send it back to the arctic tundra, where these animals would prevent the permafrost from melting and thus releasing into the in the air huge amounts of CO 2 , which would worsen global warming.

The idea that mammoths – or other large ice age mammals – could help save permafrost dates back to some 20 years ago.

Back in the days when these elephant ancestors roamed the tundra, they crushed grass and moss on the ground, chopped down trees and flattened snow. Unintentionally, they thus contributed to the permafrost remaining as cold as possible: moss conducts heat less well than trees in summer and crushed snow insulates the subsoil less from the ambient cold in winter than powder, explained Paul Mann. , a British geographer, in an article published by The Conversation in 2018 .

A life-size experience has been taking place even since 1996 in the heart of Siberia, where Russian zoologists have “over 16 km² of tundra from the time of mammoths”, says Charlotte Wrigley, a researcher at Queen Mary University in London who has visited this reserve , contacted by France 24. “They introduced existing animals that could have evolved in this environment at that time to see the effect on permafrost, and the first results are rather positive”, she underlines .

No “de-extinction”

George Church and his XXL dreams of resuscitated mammoths for the great climate cause is therefore part of this reflection. But the Colossal project does not seem to be less to be taken with a grain of salt, according to several specialists interviewed by France 24.

First, “it is not a question of resuscitating mammoths, but essentially of genetically modifying elephants by introducing a few hundred genes from woolly mammoths”, underlines Love Dalén, researcher at the Center for paleogenetics in Stockholm and specialist in Mammoth DNA, contacted by France 24.

The animal the Colossal teams want to create wouldn’t even be a new species or hybrid, but simply an Asian elephant doped with mammoth DNA to better withstand the cold.

If the advocates of these genetic manipulations like to speak of resuscitating – or more precisely of “de-extinction” (“de-extinct” in English) – the mammoth, it is “because it is an emotionally charged term which gives the impression that we are pursuing a noble cause: to bring back to life a species which, for some, would have disappeared in part because of man “, underlines Charlotte Wrigley.

A way of presenting things which may seem morally more acceptable in the eyes of the general public than reality: “These works aim to manipulate the genetic code, in an approach that is not at all natural, which does not mean that it is ‘is good or bad, but poses another series of ethical and scientific questions, “summarizes Victoria Herridge, specialist in evolutionary biology at the Museum of Natural History in London, contacted by France 24.

Ethically questionable

And one of those questions, from a scientific standpoint, is finding the mammoth genes that might help elephants have that woolly coat that better protects them from the arctic cold. Indeed, “currently we have no idea what, genetically speaking, allowed mammoths to have this resistance to cold. And discovering it, then making the elephants benefit from it, will require a lot of work,” says Love Dalén.

Ethically, this researcher is not, either, convinced of the merits of this approach. Currently, the only way to do this would be to take an egg from a female elephant in order to inject mammoth DNA into it. But “elephants are already threatened with extinction and we should let the females make baby elephants in order to give the species the best possible chance of survival”, notes the Swedish researcher.

George Church and his teams are aware of this ethical dilemma and Colossal assures us that the newborn will come into the world thanks to an artificial uterus and a synthetic egg. But again, it is a technology “that we do not yet master,” notes Victoria Herridge.

The stake is however worth the candle, since it would be a question of protecting the climate against the time bomb that lies dormant under the permafrost. Except that this stated objective “is ridiculous”, supports Love Dalén. “There isn’t the slightest beginning of scientific proof that a whole herd of mammoths would save the permafrost of the arctic tundra,” he adds.

The experiment carried out in Siberia for 20 years does not constitute a scientific demonstration and it is “purely anecdotal”, he notes again, even if he considers it however very interesting to follow.

Scientifically promising

And even if the proof did exist, it is not a mammoth that would make the difference. “We would then need a very large-scale restocking program and it is difficult to believe that we will have time to deal with the climate emergency,” explains Victoria Herridge. 

However, and paradoxically, the scientists interviewed all think that the research carried out by Colossal can prove to be very important, even crucial. “There will surely be scientific advances which will result from this work, allowing us to better understand the techniques of genetic modification”, notes Victoria Herridge.

Advances that may be able to provide humans with the necessary tools to save endangered species. “There are endangered species that are doomed to disappear unless we manage to modify their genes,” says Love Dalén. Studies have indeed shown that there is a greater risk of serious genetic diseases appearing in species with few members. For these animals, the genetic editing techniques developed to “resuscitate” the mammoth could be a game-changer.

An ambitious goal in itself – no need to promise mountains and mammoths. But perhaps to attract investors, they had to be dreamed of in XXL. And what could be more imposing than a mythical mammoth?

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