Scientists on the verge of creating hybrid elephant and mammoth


Sarah Knapton, The Syndney Morning Herald

Date Published

See link for photos.

VATICAN CITY: An elephant-mammoth hybrid, genetically engineered without tusks and hardy enough to survive away from Africa or India, could be the key to tackling poaching, scientists believe.

Dozens of mammoth genes have been resurrected by scientists at Harvard University, who are about to publish the first plans to create an artificial womb in which to grow their creation.

Professor George Church, the world-renowned geneticist, and his team have spent the past 11 years recreating the DNA blueprint of the extinct mammoth and are finally ready to release four papers setting out their research.

Using DNA from mammoths preserved in Arctic permafrost, they have found 44 genes that carry traits separating them from elephants, such as a shaggy coat and “antifreeze” blood, which allowed them to survive the Ice Age.

They are hoping to save endangered elephants by creating more hardy mammoth hybrids that can live further north. They also plan to insert non-mammoth genes, which would prevent the animals growing tusks, to prevent poaching, as well as new DNA to allow them to eat a wider diet.

“My goal is not to bring back the mammoth, it’s to bring back mammoth genes and show that they work. We have got 44 mammoth genes that have been resurrected,” he said during the Unite To Cure Fourth International Vatican Conference in Vatican City.

“If we get this thing out into the wild, it will be more than just a cold-resistant elephant, it won’t be limited to mammoth genes.

“We’re putting in genes that reduce the tusk size to prevent poaching, making them so they can eat a broader range of plants.

“We want something that can adapt to a different environment so we save two ecosystems, one is the elephant ecosystem and the other is the tundra.”

Woolly mammoths could help prevent tundra permafrost from melting and releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.

One of the papers, due for publication within the coming months, sets out plans to create a working “decidua” or womb lining in which the mammoth-elephant hybrid can grow.

The scientists are keen not to impregnate an elephant in case something goes wrong. But one of the biggest stumbling blocks has been creating sufficient blood vessels in artificial womb tissue to provide support for a growing embryo.

The process, known as vascularisation, is one of the main reasons why it is so difficult to grow human organs in the lab. But they now believe they have solved the problem and want to start testing on mice, because they only have a 20-day gestation period, in contrast to the 22 months of an elephant.

“Finally after 11 years we are going to publish work on this,” said Prof Church.

“The hardest part, where we are now, is testing all these genes that we have made, which requires at least embryogenesis (growing an embryo), so since we don’t want to interfere with the reproductive success of existing female elephants we’re trying to do it in vitro in the lab.”

The woolly mammoth roamed Europe, Asia, Africa and North America during the last Ice Age and vanished 4500 years ago, probably due to a combination of climate change and hunting. Its closest living relative is the Asian, not the African, elephant.