Can Manny Save the World?

In September 2021, a new biosciences and genetics company, Colossal, has raised $15 million to bring back the woolly mammoth from extinction. Colossal is led by George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who has pioneered new approaches to gene editing.

Proponents say bringing back the mammoth could help restore the fragile Arctic tundra ecosystem, combat the climate crisis, and preserve the endangered Asian elephant, to whom the woolly mammoth is most closely related.

How do mammoths save the Arctic?

The permanently frozen soil of the Arctic, known as permafrost, is a powder keg for climate change. The amount of carbon in these frozen stores is estimated to be about twice as much as that currently in the air.

Thawing of the permafrost would release enormous quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and cause a loop that makes a worse situation.

Today the tundra is dominated by moss. But when woolly mammoths were around, it was largely grassland. Some researchers believe that woolly mammoths were ecosystem engineers, maintaining the grasslands by breaking up moss, knocking down trees and providing fertilizer with their droppings. The restored grassland would keep the soil from melting and eroding, and might even lock away heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

In recent years, ‘’rewilding’’ has been a popular idea to save the environment, that is, to restore the land to a state of wilderness and leave it to the nature to develop on its own. Scientists grow about 150 species of Pleistocene fauna in the world-renowned ‘’Pleistocene Park’’ in Russia, including reindeer, Yakut horses, moose, bison, yaks, Kalmyk cows, and sheep. It’s proved that the grass in the park has increased and the surface temperature has also dropped. It seems the theory of ‘’mammoths save the Arctic’’ is feasible.

Will the Jurassic Park come true?

The goal isn't to clone a mammoth, but to create, through genetic engineering, a living, walking elephant-mammoth hybrid that would be visually indistinguishable from its extinct forerunner.

Yet this project has been questioned by many. First, humans don’t know enough about gene-edited mammoths. Is it really humane to repopulate Siberia with the mammoths hastily? Second, elephants are highly socialized animals. The baby elephants made in the laboratory cannot learn the culture and habits from the elephant group. Third, experts believe that mammoths have been eliminated by nature, and the introduction of new species may have unknown effects on the environment and the residents of the polar regions.

Some experts pointed out that this project does not put out near fire. Each elephant has to stay in an artificial womb for 22 months, and it will take another 30 years to grow into an adult, which is not able to keep up with the speed of climate change. 

Some people also believe that the current temperature in the polar regions is too hot for mammoths, and it’s unknown if the tundra has enough food for them to eat. Maybe the man-made mammoths will soon die out again, which is simply torturing and killing animals indiscriminately.

May animals determine their own future?

Do humans have the right to interfere with the survival of animals? How can animals speak for themselves? Will gene-edited mammoths really survive and develop as humans expected? 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.

The controversy has never stopped since the advent of gene editing technology. This technology is widely used, and scientists use it to study cell or animal diseases, and also modify the genes of crops and food animals to facilitate production. But will the abuse of technology cause unknown environmental harm or social injustice? If you knew animals and plants could be reproduced, would you still respect and protect their habitats?

  • The New York Times.
  • The Guardian.
  • CNN.
  • Smithsonian Magazine.
  • Revive & Restore.

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