Scientists are confident of bringing back the woolly mammoth using advanced gene splicing techniques.
The giant mammal could be brought back within years using DNA preserved from the last isolated populations on Wrangel Island off the north-eastern tip of Russia.
This last population is believed to have become extinct around 4,000 years ago.
Now geneticist George Church and his team at Harvard University have used DNA from mammoths preserved in the island’s Arctic permafrost to detect the genes that distinguish mammoths from elephants.
By splicing the mammoth genes into the genome of an Asian elephant embryo, the team believes it can create a mammoth-elephant hybrid bearing the distinctive features of a mammoth.
The creature, dubbed “mammophant”, would be mostly elephant, but with features such as thick subcutaneous fat, long shaggy hair and blood adapted to the cold.
The mammoth genes for these specific traits are spliced into the elephant DNA using the gene-editing tool Crispr.
Prof Church helped develop the Crispr/Cas 9 technique that has transformed genetic engineering since it was first demonstrated in 2012.
Lab tests have already shown cells containing both mammoth and elephant DNA can function normally.
Prof Church also outlined plans to grow the hybrid animal within an artificial uterus, rather than use a female elephant as a surrogate mother.
Prof Church said the mammoth project had two goals:
- securing a future for the endangered Asian elephant, but in an altered form
- helping combat global warming
He believes woolly mammoths could help prevent tundra permafrost from melting and releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere.
“They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in,” he said. “In the summer, they knock down trees and help the grass grow.”
However, others have raised ethical concerns about the project.
Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, said: “The proposed ‘de-extinction’ of mammoths raises a massive ethical issue.
“The mammoth was not simply a set of genes – it was a social animal, as is the modern Asian elephant.
“What will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be greeted by elephants?”