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How to Clone a Mammoth

Posted on May 15, 2015

By Gabriel Thompson

Princeton University Press

“How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction”
A book by Beth Shapiro

Last summer, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting that the grizzly bear, which is today found mostly in Alaska and Yellowstone National Park, be reintroduced into regions where it once thrived. Among the habitats proposed by the environmental organization was California’s Sierra Nevada. The last grizzly in California was spotted in 1924, and the effort to return the animal, which is emblazoned on the state flag, elicited both excitement and fear. But mostly fear. A charging ursus arctos horribilis can reach speeds of 30 miles an hour. It weighs up to 1,700 pounds. One resident of the Sierras, informed of the proposal by a reporter, put her hand to her mouth in shock. Another said that reintroducing the grizzly “would be like bringing back Tyrannosaurus rex.” After I read about the petition in the newspaper, the potential return of the grizzly stuck in my head for weeks, in part because it seemed so fantastical. Could we really bring back such large animals and set them loose in a land they hadn’t known for nearly a century? And if we did, what would happen?

These are the sorts of questions that consume Beth Shapiro, an evolutionary biologist who takes the fantastic to a higher level with her new book, “How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.” Shapiro, an expert in “ancient DNA,” won a MacArthur Award in 2009 at the age of 33, and she and a band of pioneering scientists have been on a mission to “de-extinct” animals, a project that she argues has “great potential” in the fight to conserve existing species and habitats.

What does it mean to “de-extinct” a species? Notwithstanding the book’s title, it won’t usually involve cloning, at least for animals like the mammoth that died out thousands of years ago. (To clone an animal, a living cell is needed.) Instead, Shapiro spends her time studying ancient mammoth bones, mapping the genomes of the animal to compare it to its nearest living relative, the Asian elephant. In time, scientists like Shapiro hope to identify which DNA sequences can be tweaked to give mammoth-like characteristics to elephants — such as the ability to withstand cold temperatures — and, one day in the not too distant future, implant a mammoth-like embryo into a female elephant. In northwest Siberia, where large herbivores once feasted on the tundra grassland, a researcher has already established a nature reserve, Pleistocene Park, waiting for the first mammoths to arrive.

Shapiro’s primary goal, she writes, is to explain de-extinction “in a way that separates science from science fiction.” She criticizes the tendency of some journalists to sensationalize or mischaracterize de-extinction, and explains the current state of research in clear language that is accessible to a nonscientist. She is also forthright regarding the challenges in the work. Shapiro describes a trip taken to Siberia where, after days of searching for mammoth bones and combating ferocious mosquitoes, she returns mostly empty-handed. And when she does find mammoth bones — even well preserved bones — the DNA that is recovered is fragmentary. Almost always, it is contaminated with the DNA of plants and other animals. Making the project more difficult, the genome of the Asian elephant isn’t entirely known. “In essence, we have billions of microscopic, slightly misshapen puzzle pieces and a slightly blurry photographic key that solves a different puzzle,” Shapiro writes.

But the scientists will eventually succeed. In March, Harvard geneticist George Church, who figures prominently in Shapiro’s book, announced that his lab had spliced mammoth genes into the genome of an Asian elephant. It was, noted Popular Science, “the first time woolly mammoth genes have been functional since the species went extinct.” The future isn’t quite now, but it’s pretty soon.

That an animal can be brought back is not an argument that an animal should be brought back. Shapiro notes, early in the book, “that the present focus on bringing back particular species — whether that means mammoths, dodos, passenger pigeons, or anything else — is misguided.” She sees the de-extinction project along similar lines as the rewilding movement, which seeks to restore lost ecosystems by reintroducing animals and plants to areas in which they once thrived. “We should think of de-extinction not in terms of which life form we will bring back, but what ecological interactions we would like to see restored,” she writes.

What possible good comes from bringing the mammoth back to Siberia? Mammoths once transported seeds and nutrients across the tundra, and their presence may help the land revert to rich grasslands; these grasslands could then support the return of endangered species such as the Siberian tiger. Research has also shown that returning large herbivores to the tundra may slow the rate of global warming. In Siberia, accumulated snow creates an insulation layer that shields the ground from frigid air temperatures. Trapped in this soil is twice the amount of carbon that is in the Earth’s atmosphere. As the soil warms, partly due to the insulating snow, carbon is released. But in Pleistocene Park, where imported deer, bison and horses disturb the snow, the soil, which is directly exposed to the air, is much colder. This colder ground releases less carbon. With mammoths trampling snow, the theory goes, even more carbon would stay out of the atmosphere.

This potentially happy outcome follows several of Shapiro’s thoughtful guidelines for deciding when it makes sense to de-extinct a species. First: Is there a place to put the species in the wild where it can survive and thrive? And will it play a restorative role in the ecosystem? Those kinds of considerations, however, are ones that the market will easily overlook. Shapiro is repulsed by the thought of bringing back species only to have the miserable creatures stuck in a zoo and gawked at while cameras flash. But if de-extinction proceeds, that will certainly happen.


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