Why Scientists’ Plans to Clone Woolly Mammoths Could Be a Jurassic Mistake

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Cloning an animal is nothing new — humans have successfully been cloning sheep, cows, dogs and other creatures since the 1990s. The technology has become so widespread that, for enough money, you can have your pet cloned. Scientists can even clone plants. But what about using this technology to bring back extinct animals?

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, anywhere from 200 to 2,000 animal species go extinct each year. But Colossal Labs, a company that specializes in using cloning technology to bring extinct animals back to life, notes that number may be as high as 55,000 per year. An animal’s extinction can damage ecosystems in various ways. But reintroducing long-extinct species to new ecosystems could also pose problems. Instead of reviving more recently extinct species like the Western Black Rhinoceros or the passenger pigeon, scientists backed by Colossal Labs are looking much further back in time for their next major breakthrough.

Using a technology called CRISPR-Cas9, Colossal Labs is currently focused on bringing woolly mammoths back to life — a situation that’s a little bit Frankenstein and a lot Jurassic Park. So how exactly is Colossal attempting to execute this plan? And, more importantly, should Colossal be reviving creatures that have been extinct for thousands of years? As it turns out, this decision could be a mammoth-sized mistake for several reasons. 

What Is CRISPR-Cas9 — and How Can It Clone Extinct Animals?

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CRISPR, the technology Colossal Labs would use to carry out its de-extinction plans, stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.” Essentially, CRISPR is a group of sections of DNA that exist in many different bacteria and other organisms. “Cas9” refers to “CRISPR associated protein 9,” which is an enzyme that helps people see repeated sections in DNA. Scientists can “edit” DNA by making cuts to it with the Cas9 enzyme and applying specific sequences of different DNA.

So far, CRISPR has mainly been used in the medical field. Some diseases and health conditions are linked to genes. Scientists can use CRISPR to identify the sequences of those genes that cause disease and modify them, which can literally save lives. Several blood disorders, Huntington’s Disease and some types of cancer are just a few of the health conditions that CRISPR-Cas9 has helped already.

So, what exactly does CRISPR have to do with woolly mammoths? Colossal Labs’ scientists have begun using the technology to edit DNA from Asian elephants — living relatives of the woolly mammoth — and insert genetic information from woolly mammoth hair and other materials into the elephant DNA. The goal? To bring the mammoths back to life. Jurassic Park predicted this practice before CRISPR technology was in use — with frog DNA filling in the gaps left from dinosaur fossils — and the results were disastrous. The plans to resurrect woolly mammoths could easily head in the same direction.

Mammoths Would Be Logistical Nightmares for Zoos and Ecosystems

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Say Colossal scientists are successful in bringing woolly mammoths back to life. Where will these massive creatures live? One proposed idea is to keep the animals in a wildlife preserve or zoo. However, this would be a logistical nightmare. Adult woolly mammoths can reach heights of nearly 12 feet and can weigh over 12,000 pounds. That’s just one animal; imagine the space it would take at a zoo or other facility to seriously bring back this entire species.

It’s already an increasing trend among zoos to restructure or end elephant programs due to the exhibits’ cost and size, and meeting mammoths’ needs could present a similar problem. The consensus among conservationists is that, even with ample space, a healthy diet and proper medical care, elephants seem more depressed in zoos and deserve open spaces and their natural climates — and mammoths would, too. If woolly mammoths are anything like their elephant relatives today, social interaction with other mammoths would also be vital for their well-being. But it’s not that easy to achieve in a zoo environment, and attempts get expensive.

According to Diane Toroian Keaggy of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, elephants are also a financial burden for zoos, despite the animals’ popularity among zoo-goers. In 1999, the St. Louis Zoo’s elephant facility cost $6.6 million to build. It can take more than $500,000 to pay for and train someone to care for elephants. Elephants also consume more than $50,000 in food each year.  

Even if scientists were to clone woolly mammoths and release them into the wild somewhere with the right climate, the results could be catastrophic for existing ecosystems. Introducing woolly mammoths into ecosystems could end up decimating other animals’ food supplies. Since woolly mammoths went extinct, those other animals may have evolved into important stewards of the land or another species’ food source. The ecosystem changes resulting from a loss of these animals could also damage water supplies, shift the timing of the seasons and even lead to extreme weather events.

Mammoths Won’t Help Fight Global Warming, Either

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Colossal Labs reps have argued that resurrecting woolly mammoths is a worthy pursuit because it would help mitigate the ongoing climate crisis rather than worsen it. According to the company and backers of this experiment, woolly mammoths helped prevent climate change long ago by stomping on the ice with their heavy bodies. This broke up the ice into tiny fragments, which then reattached to major Arctic ice packs. That process, according to Colossal, is what kept ice caps from melting in the time of the woolly mammoth.

It’s not uncommon for animals’ behaviors to maintain and benefit the ecosystems they live in in this way. Ants and worms can help improve soil, which is just one more example. But the problem with applying this logic to the plan to resurrect woolly mammoths is that it’s an assumption that’s not rooted in fact or even research. Scientists simply don’t have these data on woolly mammoths because the creatures lived so long ago. It’s just not possible to know if woolly mammoths’ ice-stomping activities could have any effect on climate change.

Allocating resources to bring back the woolly mammoth could actually end up being worse for the planet in the long run. Woolly mammoths could produce excess methane, like cows, which could harm the atmosphere — methane is a greenhouse gas that leads to climate change. If mammoths are released in Arctic areas that are already melting, their presence could speed up the process since, due to climate change, temperatures already aren’t refreezing ice the way they used to.

What About the Elephants in the Room? 

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In 2015, paleontologist Beth Shapiro published a book that predicted some of what we’re seeing today from Colossal. The book, titled How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of Extinction, points to the genetic material from mammoths that’s been discovered and describes how technology could clone woolly mammoths. With these details in mind, Shapiro told NPR in an interview, “I don’t want mammoths to come back — it’s never going to be possible to create a species that is 100% identical.”

Instead of resurrecting these elephant relatives, Shapiro suggests focusing on the elephants that are still around today. If Colossal Labs asserts that there are as many as 50,000 species going extinct per year, why focus on woolly mammoths, then? It would be fascinating to see living prehistoric beasts — that’s what enticed everyone in Jurassic Park, after all. But there are plenty of animals currently on the brink of extinction we could put our energy towards saving.

Environmental concerns aside, we ultimately don’t know how mammoths would react to the modern world. Maybe there won’t be a scenario that follows Jurassic Park word for word. But if that book-turned-movie teaches us anything, it’s that a lot can go wrong when cloning extinct animals, and it likely isn’t a chance worth taking. As Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm says in the 1993 film, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Maybe it’s time for Colossal Labs to rewatch the film — and heed Dr. Malcolm’s sage advice.