At the time, researchers were learning how to reconstruct the genomes of extinct species based on fragments of DNA retrieved from fossils. It became possible to pinpoint the genetic differences that differentiated ancient species from their modern cousins, and begin to discover how those differences in DNA led to differences in their bodies.
Dr. Church, best known for inventing ways to read and edit DNA, wondered whether he could effectively revive an extinct species by rewriting the genes of a living relative. Huh. Since Asian elephants and mammoths share a common ancestor that lived about six million years ago, Dr. Church thought it might be possible to modify an elephant’s genome to create something that looked and acted like a mammoth. .
Beyond scientific curiosity, he argued, revived woolly mammoths could be helping the environment. Today, the tundra of Siberia and North America, where animals once grazed, is warming rapidly and releasing carbon dioxide. “Mammoths are hypothetically the solution,” Dr. Church argued in his speech.
Today the tundra is dominated by moss. But when woolly mammoths were around, it was largely meadow. Some researchers have argued that woolly mammoths were ecosystem engineers, maintaining grasslands by breaking down moss, felling trees, and providing fertilizer with their droppings.
Russian ecologists have imported bison and other living species to a preserve in Siberia, which they have dubbed Pleistocene Park, in hopes of turning the tundra back into a meadow. Dr Church argued that the revived woolly mammoth would be able to do this much more efficiently. He argued that restored pasture would keep soils from thawing and eroding, and could even give off heat-trapping carbon dioxide.
Dr. Church’s proposal attracted many Attention From press But a little over $100,000 in funding from the co-founder of PayPal Peter Thiel. Dr. Church’s lab supported vast research on other, better-funded experiments. “This set of tools can be used for a number of purposes, whether it is a case of extinction or iteration of the human genome,” said Dr. Hisoli.
Analyzing the genomes of woolly mammoths collected from fossils, Dr. Hisoli and his colleagues compiled a list of the most important differences between the animals and elephants. They zeroed in on 60 genes that their experiments suggest are important for the mammoth’s distinctive traits, such as hair, fat, and the woolly mammoth’s distinctively high-domed skull.