Should the woolly mammoth really be brought back from extinction?

An Animal Dilemma: There are plans to bring back new versions of the woolly mammoth - Justin Metz
For Ben Novak it all started with a dead sheep. The head of the horned beast has hung on the wall of the museum in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park for as long as he could remember, commemorating the president who was the father of America's conservation movement.
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Novak had grown up nearby, in a house his father built on the edge of South Dakota's Badlands, where he hiked every day in search of fossils. Once he saw two golden eagles with intertwined claws spiraling in the air. So he never paid much attention to a dead bighorn sheep — there were many live sheep roaming the park, along with bison so numerous they often blocked the road.
Then, when Novak was about 14 or 15, he looked at the small plaque that said the bighorn sheep had become extinct in the area and had been reintroduced, as had bison and elk. That realization, Novak says, helped him devote his life to restoring extinct species — most notably the passenger pigeon, which was once so plentiful in the eastern U.S. that its flocks were said to shield the sun, but which became extinct in captivity in 1914.
"People lived with these birds, people were allowed to see these birds, and then people throughout history prevented me from having the same incredible experience," says Novak, now 35, who lives in North Carolina with his young twins. "When one of the most exciting things a person can do is get out and see wildlife, it's impossible not to feel like you've been personally robbed by the extinctions of the last few decades."
Today, Novak is part of a growing movement trying to bring about the “extinction” of lost species through genetic engineering. These scientists and activists aim to "restabilize" Earth's ecosystems by restoring key species whose ecological roles have never been replaced. In doing so, they hope to inspire a new generation of conservationists and develop advanced technologies that could help conserve existing species in the face of climate change - and change the face of human medicine.
Victoria Herridge (left) and George Church (second right) examine the front foot of a mammoth in Siberia - Tom Redhead
Novak is a senior scientist at Revive & Restore, a charity founded in 2012 by countercultural writer Stewart Brand and based near the majestic Muir Woods just north of San Francisco. In 2020, it cloned the critically endangered Przewalski's horse and black-footed ferret from dead animals whose cells were frozen in the 1980s.
However, Novak's dream is to recreate the passenger pigeon. After sequencing its genome, he works to edit existing pigeon genes and find ways to insert new DNA into a growing embryo - something that has never been done in birds before.
But there are others who dream even bigger. Across the country in Texas, Colossal Biosciences, a for-profit startup, is trying to bring back the woolly mammoth. It has promised to produce a genetically engineered Asian elephant as close as possible to its hairy ancestor within the next six years.
The company argues that sufficient herds of these animals could mitigate climate change by recreating lost Arctic grasslands of the Ice Age. In March, just five months after launch, it raised $60 million (£48 million) from investors led by Jurassic World executive producer Thomas Tull, with previous backers including cryptocurrency tycoons Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and ultra-conservative venture capitalist Peter Thiel see huge financial potential in the gene-editing and artificial birthing techniques that Colossal intends to develop.
"Extinction is a colossal problem facing the world, and Colossal is the company that will fix it," the company's website promises. "We're probably the only species on Earth that has the ability to save other species when they're truly endangered," tells me George Church, Colossal's co-founder and principal scientist -- a veteran Harvard genetics professor.
Meanwhile, the University of Melbourne in Australia has just set up a lab dedicated to replicating the Thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, thanks to a A$5 million (£2.8 million) donation in March from Australian cryptocurrency entrepreneur Russell Wilson.
This month, lead scientist Professor Andrew Pask published a new "high quality" genetic sequence for
the wolf-like carnivorous marsupial that became extinct in 1936 after authorities put a bounty on the supposed sheep-poacher's head.
There's Now A Real Possibility Of Mammoths Returning To Roam The Earth - Justin Metz
"If someone can achieve annihilation, it will be monumental," says Pask. "It's going to change the way we look at extinction, the way we look at animal welfare."
Still, the extinction — and the work of Colossal in particular — has sparked debate among scientists and conservationists, not least because most extinct species can never truly be resurrected. Their successors will be novel creatures, carefully engineered from existing stocks with emerging genetic technologies and released into the wild in hopes of transforming their ecosystems - raising questions about how it will work, who benefits, and who is in control .
"It would be better to be honest with people about what you're doing and not create a mammoth," says Victoria Herridge, a mammoth paleontologist and broadcaster at the Natural History Museum in London, who turned down a spot on the Colossal last year on ethical grounds admitted to the advisory board.
"You don't revitalize, you don't restore, you de-anything... You're conducting a bio-engineering experiment that, if your goal is [achieved], will bring about change on a global scale." The question arises: Who gets to manipulate the planet’s climate system?”
In 2000, in a tiny room in the University of Oxford's Natural History Museum, Beth Shapiro carefully drilled into the leg bone of a dodo. It had taken some convincing for her manager to let this young American graduate student do the irreplaceable rehearsal.
"I had drilled into a lot of bones, but none were that valuable," Shapiro recalls. "We're both sitting there and we're very nervous. But I knew I had tried everything else. That would be my only chance to get [dodo] DNA.”
De-extinction was already the subject of scientific debate at the time. The cloning of Dolly the sheep in 1996 had shown that it was possible to replace the DNA in an unfertilized mammalian egg with genes from another individual, so couldn't extinct DNA be the same?
Victoria Herridge has raised ethical concerns about Tom Redhead's 'wiping out'
Shapiro didn't try to answer that question. Their quest was simply to learn more about the dodo's genome, which was challenging enough. The genetic code quickly falls apart after death if not preserved, leaving ancient DNA broken into tiny fragments, requiring Shapiro to wear a body suit, hairnet, face mask, and gloves to prevent contamination of the samples with her own material to avoid.
The Oxford sample didn't yield a full genetic sequence, but it showed that dodos killed by humans in the 17th century were actually a type of dove -- and helped make Shapiro one of the world's leading experts on ancient DNA.
Today, Shapiro is a professor at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), a board member of Revive & Restore, and an advisor to Colossal, which helps identify which genes make the difference between a modern elephant and a mammoth. She recently sequenced an entire dodo genome from a sample in Denmark and even wrote a book called How To Clone a Mammoth, her "long-form answer" to endless questions from journalists. Ben Novak, who studied with her at UCSC, describes her as the mother of defining extinctions.
Ironically, she doesn't really believe in it. "I'm not against annihilation, I just don't think it's possible," she explains. Finding a perfect DNA sample is impossible for animals that became extinct before modern preservation methods like cryogenic freezing.
mass extinction
Even if we had one, Shapiro argues that any given species is not only the product of its DNA but also of its environment, the conditions of its gestation and the way it is raised, none of which can be replicated.
"If you're willing to accept an Asian elephant that has the few genes that allow it to survive better than a mammoth in a cold place, then that's quite possible. But if you want something genetically, behaviorally, and psychologically identical in every way to a mammoth? That will never happen.'
So why spend so much time and money on obliteration? As many arguments against these technologies suggest, why not instead focus on preserving existing endangered animals?
"We're currently in the midst of a mass extinction," said Axel Möhrenschlager, a zoo conservation director who helped develop the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) guidelines for reviving extinct species. "And so shouldn't we do everything we can to save the remaining species that need our help and that we can save if we apply science and politics with bold action?"
At Melbourne's new hi-tech lab mischievously named Thylacine Integrated Research and Restoration Lab (or TIGRR), six postdoctoral researchers and two staff members grow a live population of marsupial stem cells, analyze their RNA and subject them to various conditions to test whether they have one days could be used to produce proxy Thylacine embryos. They hire time on powerful supercomputers to study the genetic differences between thylacines and other marsupials and work out what DNA changes might best bridge the gap between them.
Much of this work is based on four surprisingly well-preserved DNA samples from three baby thylacines that had lain in a Melbourne museum archive for years, found in the pouch of a woman who was shot and preserved in ethanol rather than formaldehyde about a century ago ( breaking DNA).
After sampling the babies in 2000, Andrew Pask was later able to reproduce some thylacine genes and insert them into a developing mouse zygote, the first time extinct DNA had been "revived" in a living animal. According to Pask, TIGRR's new thylacine sequence is "the currently best genome for any extinct species".
Dolly the Sheep was cloned in 1996 - Getty
For extinction advocates, this is not a distraction from conservation; it is conservation. Today, the DNA of more than 1,200 endangered species and subspecies has been archived at San Diego's Frozen Zoo, one of many such "biobanks" around the world.
Colossal co-founder Ben Lamm cites Najin, one of only two northern white rhinos left on Earth, who dropped out of an egg-freezing program last year because she is too old. Any technology capable of resuscitating a woolly mammoth, thylacine or passenger pigeon could also help save these species.
Proponents also argue that it doesn't matter that a revived animal isn't identical to its ancestor if it fills the same ecological niche. Novak's research, for example, suggests that the huge flocks of passenger pigeons played a crucial role in clearing and thus rejuvenating forests - and that modern species still suffer from their absence.
He sees eradication as a continuation of existing conservation methods: We often breed endangered species in captivity to replenish wild populations, sometimes crossing them with other subspecies or training them with survival skills.
Similarly, Pask argues that the ecological void left by the Tasmanian tiger when it went extinct some 80 years ago has never been filled — let alone the void in Australia's national culture ("If you go to Tasmania, every government sign a Tazzie Tiger on it,” says Pask).
In theory, it was so short that a recreated version could slip back into its old role to help stabilize local food webs as Australia's only apex marsupial predator. Its distant relative, the Tasmanian devil, for example, was endangered by a highly contagious facial cancer, which Pask says could have been prevented or slowed if the thylacine had been nearby to weed out the sick individuals.
"It's hard to justify the extinction of many species just because their niche no longer exists. But for the Tazzie tiger, the environment remains unchanged.”
ecosystem engineers
The ethics of replicating a mammoth are a little trickier. Colossal's Ben Lamm and George Church believe they can identify which genes differentiate mammoths from modern elephants, and then convert those traits -- like extra insulating fat and long hair -- into the DNA of Asian elephants, which they believe contributes to about 99 .6 percent is identical (compared to 98.6 percent for humans and chimpanzees).
The story goes on

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