WOOLLY MAMMOTH DE-EXTINCTION IS FAKE NEWS
De-extinction–ideas for raising long-gone organisms from the dead–is back.
The highest-profile project of the de-extinction movement is viewed in the media almost exclusively as a plan to bring back the woolly mammoth. This big shaggy elephant began disappearing along with the Ice Age as the warmer Holocene began about ten or twelve thousand years ago. The beast’s gene-impaired last remnant vanished 4000 years ago.
But. truth to tell, resurrecting the woolly mammoth is not a de-extinction project at all. The real plan is to create an entirely novel beast. A GMO. The woolly mammoth itself can never rise again.
George Church calls what he and his colleagues are attempting a cold-resistant Asian elephant. They are employing gene-editing methods, CRISPR in particular, to create an Asian elephant embryo with some mammoth genes.
Holly Kernot at VetTimes says Church’s lab is using DNA from what is believed to be the last woolly mammoth population, a group of 300 that expired 4,000 years ago on Wrangel Island, off the north-eastern tip of Russia.
I hope that’s not true, because it would saddle the GMO with many defective genes. A recent PLOS Genetics paper that compared a genome from a Wrangel Island mammoth with the genome of a mainland mammoth that lived 45,000 years ago found the island remnant population to be in sad genetic shape. Brian Resnick’s post at Nature News says the gene differences point to a severely damaged sense of smell–and a strange translucent coat.
Church’s project was deemed newsworthy because of his recent claim that a woolly mammoth embryo is only two years away. The claim appeared in dozens of publications, ranging from the Daily Star to New Scientist.
Paleoanthropologist John Hawks took to Medium to declare that Church’s claim was fake news. Hawks presents five reasons for saying that. One is that Church has been saying that success is two years away since at least 2014. In the meantime, his lab has published nothing on the topic.
Another reason is that the Church lab has done only 45 mammoth-like edits of the elephant genome to date. But at least 4000 gene differences between the two species are likely. There’s a big difference, Hawks notes, between slightly modifying an existing species and resurrecting an extinct one.
Adding to the challenge, at NeuroLogica Steven Novella reminds us that a simple tally of number of gene differences does not include the many differences in regulatory apparatus. (Gene regulation controls whether those thousands of genes are turned on or off, or are producing a lot of gene product or not so much.)
“Two years?” Novella asks. “No way. Twenty years? Probably not, but it is hard to say because the pace of advancement in genetic science has been very rapid.” Still, although it may take decades, Novella believes “eventually we will have the knowledge and technology to make clones or at least hybrids of currently extinct species.”
SCIENCE WRITERS AND MAMMOTH FAKE NEWS
It’s clear Hawks thinks the fake news is mostly the fault of science writers. They aren’t asking the right questions, especially this one: “If you are waiting for a big result to publish later, why is this newsworthy now?”
But the real jaw-dropper in this tale is that, even if a viable embryo is achieved, success in the resurrection project seems to require, get this, an artificial womb.
An elephant-size artificial womb.
An elephant-size artificial womb that would function flawlessly for an elephantine pregnancy, which is 22 months long.
And that can deliver an elephant-size infant, which weighs about 200 pounds.
Hawks points out the obvious, “If an effective artificial uterus were invented, it would be a massively more important story than Church’s mammoth gene transfer project. The technical challenges are much greater, and the human benefits of such technology would be enormous. For me, when writers uncritically put artificial wombs into the mammoth story, they cemented its status as fake news. If this project cannot be achieved without a science fiction-level advance, then no responsible journalist would report that results are realistic in two years.”
DE-EXTINCTION IS IMMORAL
Other species are potential candidates for de-extinction too. But a recent paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution posed this question: is it better to spend social resources trying to bring back species long gone from the Earth? Or to keep existing species from disappearing?
Here’s an example from the paper, described by Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience: “if New Zealand resurrected 11 of its extinct species, the government would have to sacrifice the conservation of 33 living species to pay to keep the revived species alive.”
But a cost-benefit analysis is not the only way to think about the ethics of de-extinction. Pappas quoted one ethicist as arguing that some extinct organisms might be so important culturally as to be a worthwhile investment to bring back. Another might be an effort to resurrect not only a creature, but its entire ecosystem.
Church has argued for the woolly mammoth project partly on ecological grounds too. Hilary Hanson noted at Huffington Post, “Church said he envisions the hybrid creatures living on the tundras of Russia and Canada, where he has argued their presence could help stave off the effects of climate change.”
That’s disingenuous at the very least. The idea that a woolly mammoth reborn, even as a cold-resistant Asian elephant, would help save the planet is nonsense. As Brian Resnick points out at the Wall Street Journal, elephants are social creatures. A woolly mammoth relied “on other mammoths for everything from the specialized, plant-grinding bacteria in its gut to its behavior. Without a herd, it’s not a mammoth.” (Resnick’s WSJ post is paywalled of course, but was reprinted and is free to read at Rick Meril’s blog Coyotes-Wolves-Cougars. It’s review of Helen Pilcher’s new book on de-extinction, Bring Back the King.)
Resnick also points out that global warming is shrinking the Arctic habitat suitable for the planned hybrid. Not to mention the menace of ivory poachers who are wiping out our existing elephants. I imagine they might be willing to move to the Arctic–or that new local poachers would arise.
In her post at Last Word on Nothing, Michelle Nijhuis says she’s not fundamentally opposed to de-extinction research although she thinks media coverage has been way out of proportion to the realities. She says, “For every de-extinction story, I’d like to see at least a million stories about species that don’t need to be de-extincted—yet.”
Some of these stories could be about banking DNA from species about to go extinct. That’s what Novella argues for. He points out that, with its genome available, a species can simply be cloned. Cloning is something biology already knows how to do. Such DNA banking is already underway. See, for example, a Mashable post by photographer Gaia Squari and writer Laurence Cornet. It describes the Frozen Zoo that began at the San Diego Zoo long ago, in the 1970s. There are now animal and plant DNA banks in several other places.