While the Dodo has gone the way of the dodo, boffins who have never read Jurassic Park are close to bringing back the woolly mammoth.
Without needing to get any public liability insurance, the team of boffins are on the brink of resurrecting the ancient beast in a revised form, through an ambitious feat of genetic engineering.
Speaking ahead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Boston this week, the scientist leading the “de-extinction” effort said the Harvard team is just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant.
“Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo,” said Prof George Church. “Actually, it would be more like an elephant with many mammoth traits. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.”
So not quite the animal that died out 4,000 years ago but more a “mammophant”, would be partly elephant, but with features such as small ears, subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and cold-adapted blood.
The mammoth genes for these traits are spliced into the elephant DNA using the powerful gene-editing tool, Crispr.
So far, the team have stopped at the cell stage, but are now moving towards creating embryos – although, they said that it would be many years before any serious attempt at producing a living creature.
“We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and basically trying to establish embryogenesis in the lab,” said Church.
Since starting the project in 2015 the researchers have increased the number of “edits” where mammoth DNA has been spliced into the elephant genome from 15 to 45.
Some of these modifications could help preserve the Asian elephant, which is also in trouble and might follow its shaggy ancestor into the elephant species grave yard.
Some other scientists are a little worried that the genetics boffins have not thought things through enough.
Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, points out that the mammoth was not simply a set of genes, it was a social animal, as is the modern Asian elephant. What will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be greeted by other elephants?
The woolly mammoth roamed across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America during the last Ice Age and vanished about 4,000 years ago, probably due to a combination of climate change and the fact that mammoth steaks were rather delicious.