Pleistocene Park is a remote 16-square-kilometer patch of tundra located north of Siberia. It was created as part of an attempt to take a 15,000-year step back in time and restore the vast, cold mammoth steppe ecosystem that once covered much of Europe, North America and Russia during the Pleistocene epoch.
A combination of natural climate warming and human hunting eradicated many of the large mammals that once roamed this land. Each animal fulfilled a niche and kept the ecosystem in balance. While the musk ox, bison, moose, horses and reindeer have all been returned to Pleistocene Park, there is one extinct animal that has yet to walk this preserved mammoth steppe: the mammoth itself.
For an episode of “TechKnow,” we interviewed Dr. Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist and a paleogenomicist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. We learned from her that the technology will soon exist for the mammoth to make its return to this park, though not without controversy.
The big question: Should we bring an extinct species back? As Shapiro put it, “If we’re just going to look at it and then watch it go extinct again — this, in my mind, is one of those two wrongs (don’t make a right) scenarios.”
But, she explained, there is the possibility of bringing back an animal to restore the ecological role it once played. According to Shapiro, that could “actually save other species that might have gone extinct if that niche had been left vacant.” So a seemingly benevolent use of this technology might be to bring back mammoths so they could help in nutrient and vegetation cycling, as elephants do now.
So if there’s a good reason to bring back an extinct woolly mammoth, how do we do it?
Dr. Beth Shapiro
UC Santa Cruz
You might be familiar with the “Jurassic Park” approach, which in this case would take the entire nucleus or genome from a frozen, preserved woolly mammoth and placing it into an elephant’s egg to create the mammoth. Unfortunately for many sci-fi fans, DNA doesn’t quite work this way and has been found to degrade at a relatively high rate.
However, even as the DNA degrades, we are left with fragments that are often still usable, especially in something like a well-preserved mammoth.
Thus researchers are looking at the idea of DNA editing — adding bits of mammoth DNA to elephant DNA to make it more mammothlike. The key is to know precisely where in the genome lie the differences that make the woolly mammoth woolly and mammothlike.
From there, you edit the DNA by cutting out the elephant parts and replacing them with mammoth segments. “And so you have made genome look like a mammoth instead of like an elephant,” Shapiro explains. While it’s complicated, Shapiro thinks it can be done in coming decades.