These Ice Age herbivores, whose closest living relatives are the Asian elephant, lived on several northern continents and had a thick, furry coat that protected against the extreme cold. The shaggy animals went extinct about 4,000 years ago, but the current revolution in genetics—which is combating aging, eradicating diseases, and even allowing parents to create "designer babies"—may change that. (Read how to resurrect lost species.)
In his new book, Woolly: The True Story Of The Quest To Revive One Of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Species, Ben Mezrich goes from the laboratory to the Siberian steppe as scientists explore the possibilities of reviving the woolly mammoth to its native lands—and possibly, threatened ecosystems along with it.
When National Geographic caught up with Mezrich by phone at his home in Boston, he explained why some people think woolly mammoths could help combat climate change—and the ethical concerns behind these grand ambitions.
The idea of resurrecting a woolly mammoth sounds like something out of a Michael Crichton novel. Is it really happening? And how much of a revolution in science will this be?
It does feel like a Michael Crichton story [Laughs.] But it’s true! The stuff he was doing in Jurassic Park is now scientifically possible. We now have these genetic tools, specifically CRISPR, which is a revolution in the science of genetic engineering. It allows us to place individual genes that code for specific characteristics into the genome of living creatures.
That’s what’s happening in the Woolly Mammoth Project. It used to be that we were reading DNA. Now we are at the point where we can write it. The world we live in is going to be a different place in 30 years because of what’s going on in laboratories now. People talk about different kinds of technology, such as the Internet, artificial intelligence, or robotics. But I believe this is all going to be dwarfed by what’s going on in biology. Once you can re-make 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 giant, bearded geneticist named George Church. Give us a character sketch—and describe the project he is leading.
He’s definitely something right out of a Hollywood movie. He’s 6’8” with this enormous beard and halo of white hair, like you imagine God would look like [Laughs.] 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, that he was now living in the past and it was his job to make the world into the world that he came from.
He’s like the Einstein of today. He was the youngest scientist in the Human Genome Project, where he made faster ways of sequencing human genomes and reading genes.
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, or steppes, 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. And the problem is, the tundra is this ticking time bomb. [Trapped] within the permafrost [is] more carbon than if we burned all the forests on Earth three times. And as the world warms, we’re getting closer and closer to the point where [the permafrost melts] and this time bomb will go off.
Sergei and his son, Nikita, have been running an experiment since the ‘80’s where they roped off an area of the tundra and reintroduced Pleistocene-era animals, like reindeer, bison, and Yakut horses. They also brought in a Russian tank to mimic a mammoth. What they’ve discovered is that you can lower the temperature of the permafrost by as much as 15 degrees [Fahrenheit] just by reintroducing these animals. That's because large herbivores encourage the growth of steppe grasses, which in turn have a high albedo effect. These light-colored grasses reflect sunlight back into the atmosphere like a mirror, reducing the heat absorbed into the Earth and thus minimizing temperatures—and reducing 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 mammoth are surfacing all the time as the permafrost slowly melts. The tusks, [used for decoration], are worth about $250,000 dollars each. So there’s a massive trade in mammoth ivory, especially in China, which is legal because it's not an endangered species. It’s an extinct species. Harvesting it is very hazardous. [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. But they can supply a whole Yakut village’s needs for a year, if they find one. (This theory for how woolly mammoths went extinct blames invading grasses.)
Give us a layperson’s guide to the scientific challenges involved in creating a woolly mammoth—and when it might happen.
The science is really cool. First, you need to sequence a prehistoric mammoth. Frozen carcasses are brought up from the ice—you take a sample and sequence the genome. Once you’ve got the sequence, you know the genome of the mammoth, so you choose the characteristics that are important to make a mammoth a mammoth. Ninety-nine percent of their genome is similar to [that of] the Asian elephant, so Church’s lab believes that if a woolly mammoth mated with an Asian elephant, they would be able to have a baby. Unlike Jurassic Park, you’re not cloning a woolly mammoth. The material within the carcasses has been degraded over 3,000 to 12,000 years due to radiation and bad conditions.
Instead, you synthesize the genes, place them into the embryo of an Asian elephant, put the embryo back into an Asian elephant, and the Asian elephant then gives birth to the Woolly Mammoth. Church’s lab is also working on a synthetic womb. The goal to have the first baby in two to three years. (Related: "Rewiring Life: Learning About Synthetic Biology.")
The idea of concocting new forms of life in laboratories may seem to some like Frankenscience or an attempt to play God. What about the ethical—and biological—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 the ethics. In this case, I believe—and I think most conservationists agree—that bringing back an extinct species like the mammoth is less playing God than it is correcting something we did. And scientists play God every day. When you attempt to cure cancer or to get rid of malaria, you’re making decisions about life in a big way.
The scariest thing is that there’s no real oversight body. There are labs all over the world doing things like this. Most scientists think there needs to be some oversight whether [it's] from within the community itself or on a governmental basis. 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—and how is their plan different from the American one?
The Korean company Sooam Biotech was founded by a scientist who was disgraced for falsely claiming that he had cloned human cells. He reinvented himself by creating this company that clones dogs. He is also attempting to bring back the woolly mammoth. Their goal is to get a piece of mammoth material in good enough condition to clone. Other scientists believe that’s not possible. But, supposedly, a Russian team they're working with found a woolly mammoth half-submerged in ice that had flash-frozen and was in such good condition that when they pulled it up, there was liquid blood.
Whether this is true or not is hard to verify. The material has been hidden away in a secret vault at a Russian university. If this material does exist, if this mammoth is in such amazing condition that there’s liquid blood, maybe you could clone this material and build a mammoth. George and his team don’t believe it’s possible.
But who knows?
This interview was edited for length and clarity.