Revive the woolly mammoth for what? The explanation of the project leaders and the objections of other scientists

(CNN Spanish) –Can you imagine a herd of woolly mammoths walking on ice today? A group of scientists yes. And it’s not just a thought: they plan to make it happen and they raised $ 15 million to do it.

Through Colossal, Ben Lamm, co-founder and CEO and Dr. George Church, co-founder, will carry out an ambitious project that involves the use of genes from the giant woolly mammoth, extinct 4000 years ago.

“Actually, we are not reviving the mammoth, but the genes of the mammoth,” explained Dr. Church in a virtual press conference attended by CNN Español. “We have already revived two of the mammoth genes that have been shown in the laboratory to confer resistance to cold,” he added.

Both Lamm and Church stressed that the goal of this project is to help protect the Arctic ecosystem, which has been affected by climate change.

Why did they choose the mammoth? Lamm explained at the press conference that this giant is the one chosen for a “large number of reasons.” “Including the fact that we have a location to put them,” he said. He added: “We have an impact that we believe will be positive for the environment and for the world. And we have the technologies to do it with your closest living relatives. [los elefantes]. That is why we have been quite thoughtful in approaching the matter ”.

The main challenges of reviving mammoths

Ben Lamm and George Church, leaders of the project to revive the woolly mammoth (Courtesy Colossal)

“Using CRISPR technology, Colossal will pioneer a practical and functional model of extinction and will be the first to apply advanced gene editing techniques to restore the woolly mammoth to the Arctic tundra.” Colossal explains, it’s a statement, how are they working to get that hybrid between mammoth and elephant.

CRISPR technology is a revolutionary gene editing tool that is described as a rewriting of the code of life, to alter the characteristics of living species.

But where will these embryos develop? CNN asked Church if using elephants as surrogate mothers would not put these females at risk. “Since both the Asian elephant and African elephants are endangered species, we are trying not to interfere with their reproduction,” said Dr. Church.

“At the same time, we would like to have a large generation the first year instead of going through a slow reproduction that takes so long to reach that sexual maturity. So we would like to have an enlargement through artificial uteri, ”he said. “We are testing it initially in mice and then we will transfer it.”

Church clarified that the surrogate mother method has been used in the pig project as organ donors. “But we don’t think we’re going to do this with the elephants, that part of the elephant project is a bit different than the way we did the pig project,” he said.

For his part, Lamm said: “Our goal is to have our first offspring in the first four to six years”, although he recognized that it is an ambitious goal and that, like any scientific project, it can be subject to change. mostly solid, if not fully resolved. And we’re really just looking at the engineering challenges and how we can produce enough elephants at scale to really have the impact we’re looking for, “added Lamm.

The scientists behind this project will also have to take other precautions. Among them: preventing current viruses from affecting new hybrids, and at the same time making sure not to bring viruses that no longer exist today.

On how they will avoid the first, Church said: “We can vaccinate them [a los híbridos], at least initially, and then they will obtain antibodies from mother to child and receive a natural vaccination, just like normal herds ”.

Scientists develop a new gene editing technique 1:18

Other techniques are also working to eliminate viruses that today affect elephants.

“For three years, beginning around 2010, [un programa activo] it is making organisms resistant to all viruses, even viruses that we have never seen before, but changing the genetic code ”.

Finally, Church assured: “We are not introducing any old virus”.

“I think we have already learned our lesson about zoonotic viruses, Ebola, coronavirus and swine flu,” said the scientist. “We do not want to give them any possibility of evolving in a new situation, even if they are very far from humans, the intention of this project is to put them [a los animales híbridos] as far away from living humans as possible. We still want to make sure we do everything possible to prevent zoonotic spread from one animal to another or from one animal to a human. “

Doubts in the scientific community

The idea of ​​reviving the woolly mammoth, or indeed a hybrid between elephant and mammoth, generates some skepticism in part of the scientific community.

“Personally, it would seem unethical to me to experiment with such unknown or developing techniques with elephants,” Luis Castañeda, an academic at the Institute of Biomedical Sciences of the University of Chile, told CNN en Español.

“I would prefer to invest resources in generating in vitro projects in elephants and not recover a species that became extinct thousands of years ago,” he added.

Scientists seek to revive woolly mammoth, but is it ethical? 2:57

“If all this works out, in scientific terms it is a lot of progress. But the ethical questioning is always there, “said Castañeda, who also wonders” what will happen to this species, when they are released into a different environment “from the one that mammoths inhabited thousands of years ago.

For his part, Alex Godoy, director of the UDD Sustainability Research Center, said that the important thing before a scientific project is to ask “what is the purpose, beyond the intellectual concern.”

“If it’s using genetic tools to recover a species, it’s one thing. But bringing an embryo to see what happens is something else, “Godoy told CNN Español. In that sense, he noted that the argument that the mammoth project could help reduce the impact of climate change in the Arctic “is just an assumption.”

In the same vein, Patricio Olguín, PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Chile, stated. “The resources must be invested in other problems much more important than bringing animals that have been extinct,” he said in an interview in Café, on CNN en Español. “What is the logic of bringing an animal to an environment that will no longer support it? What is the impact they can have on the ecosystem? ”He asked.

Colossal experts explained that their techniques can have a strong impact on the scientific community. Most importantly: the incorporation of artificial uteri, which, if they work, could be useful for thousands of species in danger of extension, they assured.

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