At the time, researchers were learning how to reconstruct the genomes of extinct species based on DNA fragments taken from fossils. It’s possible to pinpoint the genetic differences that set ancient species apart from their modern cousins, and to begin to figure out how those differences in DNA make the differences in their bodies.
Dr. Church, who is best known for inventing ways to read and edit DNA, wondered if he could effectively resurrect an extinct species by rewriting the genes of a living relative. Because Asian elephants and mammoths share a common ancestor that lived about six million years ago, Dr Church thinks it’s possible to modify the elephant’s genome to create something that looks and behaves like a mammoth.
Beyond scientific curiosity, he argues, resurgent woolly mammoths could help the environment. Today, the tundra of Siberia and North America where the animals once grazed are rapidly warming and releasing carbon dioxide. “Hypothetically, the mammoth is a solution to this problem,” Dr. Church argued in his talk.
Today the tundra is dominated by moss. But when woolly mammoths are around, it’s mostly grassland. Some researchers have argued that woolly mammoths were ecosystem engineers, maintaining grasslands by destroying moss, knocking down trees, and providing fertilizer with their droppings.
Russian ecologists imported bison and other living species to a reserve in Siberia they named Pleistocene Park, in the hope of turning the tundra back into grasslands. Dr. Church thinks the resurrected woolly mammoth should be able to do this more effectively. Restored grasslands would keep soil from melting and eroding, he argues, and could even lock in heat-trapping carbon dioxide.
Dr. Church’s proposal garnered a lot of press attention but little funding beyond $100,000 from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Dr. Church’s lab supported mammoth research for other, better-funded experiments. “This toolkit can be used for many purposes, whether it’s extinction or decoding the human genome,” Dr Hysolli said.
Analyzing the woolly mammoth genomes collected from fossils, Dr Hysolli and her colleagues came up with a list of the most important differences between animals and elephants. They focused on 60 genes that their experiments showed were important for the mammoth’s distinctive features, such as the mammoth’s distinctive high-domed hair, fat and skull.