Harvard geneticist George Church and his colleagues say they inserted mammoth genes for small ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and colour into the DNA of elephant skin cells. They claim it might be possible in this way to bring the mammoth, which died out 3,600 years ago – back to life, but probably not anytime soon.
“There is more work to do, but we plan to do so,” Church told The Times newspaper.
Next, they need to find a way to turn the hybrid cells into specialized tissues, to see if they produce the right traits. For instance, the researchers need to make sure the mammoth genes produce hair of the right color and texture.
After that, the team plans to grow the hybrid cells in an artificial womb; scientists and animal-rights advocates have deemed it unethical to grow them in a living elephant’s womb.
If these hybrids survive, they hope to engineer an elephant that can survive in cold climates. Then, by introducing more mammoth DNA into the elephant’s genome they might be able to revive the ancient animals.
If that works, Church has his eye on other animals, including the passenger pigeon, a bird whose flocks once filled the skies of North America but went extinct in the early 20th century.
His current research is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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