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Elephant and woolly mammoth in the snow

Image by Russ Seidel on Flickr

Every few years for the past 20 or so, the story resurfaces, frozen in time like a permafrost carcass. At some future point, typically within the decade, scientists hope to ‘bring back the mammoth’. There have been a few tantalizing results — stirrings in mammoth nuclei transplanted into mouse eggs (K. Yamagata et al. Sci. Rep9, 4050; 2019) — but that’s it. Hence raised eyebrows at last month’s announcement by de-extinction champion and geneticist George Church, co-founder (with entrepreneur Ben Lamm) of biotechnology start-up Colossal: yet again, the world has about five years until a wobbly, woolly calf takes its first steps into the Anthropocene.

What Colossal actually aims to produce is less a mammoth than a new synthetic species, a chimaera of Asian elephant DNA and mitochondria, mammoth genetic code and, from the probable surrogate dam, African elephant epigenetics. The resulting cold-adapted elephants — Colossal hopes — will trample and graze northern Siberia to create something akin to the Ice Age grasslands of the woolly mammoth’s heyday. Compacted... see more