The late author Michael Crichton would’ve loved the scientists and entrepreneurs at Colossal, the American company that wants to repopulate the Siberian tundra with herds of woolly mammoth-like creatures, ostensibly to help combat climate change.
There’s an area in the remote Russian territory where imported bison currently roam, but there aren’t nearly enough of them to efficiently break up the moss that dominates the terrain and contributes to the build-up of carbon dioxide.
Russian ecologists working with Colossal want to revive the wild grasslands that covered the land eons ago when the now extinct mammoths pulverized the encroaching moss, clearing the way for grass to spring up.
The theory is that the return of grasslands to the Siberian tundra via mammoth herds and the tons of digestive waste they would produce would help keep carbon dioxide at bay.
According to the scientists, the presence of more mammoth-feces-enriched grass on the tundra would stop the rapid soil erosion that now threatens the Siberian ecosystem, which has been undergoing unprecedented warming for decades.
Colossal is raising money to develop the technology it needs to reconstruct the genomes of woolly mammoths by adding the genes for dense hair and thick fat to the embryos of Asian elephants. The company already has $15 million in initial funding and would like to produce its first woolly mammoth in a few years. It will take many more years on top of that to produce a herd, but once the first woolly mammoths are produced using artificial mammoth uteruses, they believe they can scale up the operation. This technology is expected to lead to profits on multiple fronts.
If this scenario sounds vaguely familiar and sends a chill down your back, it should. The area where Colossal wants to introduce this artificially bred species of woolly mammoths has been dubbed Pleistocene Park — an homage to “Jurassic Park,” Michael Crichton’s famous thriller about scientific hubris that leads to the resurrection of several species of dinosaurs, so you know where this story is headed.
Ethical concerns are already being raised about genetically resurrecting a species that was partially hunted into extinction between 4,000 and 10,000 years ago by humans. The creatures were also plagued by a smorgasbord of genetic mutations, thanks to inbreeding, disease and reproductive difficulties.
Technically, the creatures Colossal wants to create in its labs aren’t reanimated from the ancient DNA of fossils like the dinosaurs in Crichton’s book. These creatures who are expected to look and perhaps act like woolly mammoths will have never been seen in the world before. This is a major part of the objection to the project. Scientists won’t know anything about the genetic limitations of the creatures. Is it fair to bring them into existence without a training manual?
It is assumed that if woolly mammoths are anything like elephants today, they form intense bonds with their mothers after they’re born and are mentored by them for years. The first generation of Colossal mammoths will be motherless and will not have learned how to navigate the environment they’ll inhabit.
Man-made mammoths roaming the Siberian tundra may not want to break up moss, eat grass or defecate all day. They might be several tons of craziness. Despite having created them, we won’t have a 100% understanding of their biological and mental needs without the benefit of observing them for years. Will their existence trigger the appearance of new diseases that can migrate to humans? Will they be treated like an invasive species by the current inhabitants of the tundra?
“Jurassic Park” comparisons aside, we’ve encountered these questions before in other contexts. Just because we have the theoretical ability to build an atomic bomb, should we? What could possibly go wrong when mammoths walk the Earth again?
— The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Sept. 25