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Editorial and Mammoths: Animal Revivals and Ethics

Jul 14, 2015 05:36 PM EDT
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The most popular motion picture in theaters now is Jurassic World, a sequel to the 1993 science-fiction feature. In the current film, not only do we have the technology to genetically engineer dinosaurs, but it's been done to the degree that the general public is jaded about it. The original premise seemed like science-fiction in 1993, but those concepts are a bit more plausible in today's world. We'll probably never be able to clone back dinosaurs--but right now, there are at least ten different teams of geneticists vying to resurrect another extinct creature that is just as interesting: the woolly mammoth.

The mammoths were about the size of modern African elephants, and the last population died out just 3,700 years ago -- around the same time that the ancient Egyptians built the first pyramids. With tusks that sometimes reached 15 feet in length, they are perhaps the most iconic animal of the Ice Age, covered in heavy coats of fur and four inches of body fat beneath their skin to serve as insulation from the cold climates. Because a wealth of dead mammoths has been found well preserved, the genes necessary for the survival of these animals have been found and isolated. Morsels were actually cut from one animal discovered in Siberia in 1951 and served as appetizers at an annual Explorers Club dinner in New York City.

A successful mapping of the mammoth genome has allowed scientists to fill in the gaps with DNA from the mammoth's closest living relative, the Asian elephant. Perhaps one of the most ambitious efforts is currently being done by Sergey Zimov, director of the Northeast Science Station in Russia, who has been seeking to bring back not only the mammoth but an entire Ice Age ecosystem in Siberia, complete with long-extinct bisons, smilodons, and wolves, developing a refuge known as Pleistocene Park, where the animals will be as close to the lands of their bygone ancestors as possible.

However, the process of de-extinction remains highly controversial, primarily because resurrected animals have no rights -- they're owned by the people who design them. While invasive species are already a concern throughout the world, it is hard to predict how much of an impact a newly engineered creature would affect the natural balance.

However, some tundra plants still have not fully recovered from the extinction of large ice-age mammals. Reintroducing mammoths could possibly bring surprising changes to the ecosystem -- not unlike when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone. Another concern is whether mammoths will adapt to today's climate, when rising temperatures and sea levels, along with human hunting, played a role in their extinction. While the question of ethics hangs in the balance, researchers are getting nearer to cloning a new mammoth, using technology that might be better put to use in reviving a nearly extinct species. Somehow, life finds a way.

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