Harvard Scientists to Clone Mammoth-Elephant Hybrids

Today's elephants are on the brink of extinction due to environmental degradation and poaching. Scientists seek to produce a new resistant breed of elephant equipped with mammoth genes.

Poaching, habitat destruction, and other environmental factors have put elephants on the path to extinction. Now, Harvard researchers are hoping to save the species by creating a mammoth-elephant hybrid breed.

The team is led by geneticist and Harvard professor George Church and, after 11 years of dedicated work, has recreated the genetic blueprint of the woolly mammoth. The scientists hope to use the 44 resurrected genes from the long-extinct beast to give elephants traits, such as antifreeze blood, that could help the animals survive their current threatening conditions.

A complex hybrid

"My goal is not to bring back the mammoth, it's to bring back mammoth genes and show that they work and that we have already done it," said Church at the Fourth International Vatican Conference in Vatican City last Friday.

The scientists have planned many upgrades for their new species. For instance, the mammoth-elephant hybrids would be created without tusks to protect the species from the ivory tusk trade that is currently decimating elephants.

The hybrid would also contain non-mammoth genes for other traits such as the ability to consume a more diverse diet. "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," Church added.

According to Church, the biggest challenges still lie ahead. “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 were trying to do it in vitro in the lab."

Church explained that the team is planning to use a general method where stem cells will be turned in to “decidua, which is the tissue into which the embryos implant.” The team would not be able to immediately test the embryo for their hybrid, instead, they will create an artificial womb which is "a good environment for initially a mouse embryo and then later larger mammals."

Natural interbreeding

Although the experiment may seem a bit scary and unnatural, the truth is that interbreeding has occurred naturally for a long time in elephant species. Elle Palkopoulou, a post-doctoral scientist at Harvard University Medical School working on another elephant genome sequencing project told Digital Trends that “different elephant species interbred in the past more than once.”

“For instance, the straight-tusked elephant descended from a mixture of three different evolutionary lineages, while North American woolly mammoths had ancestry from Columbian mammoths," she added. The woolly mammoth has been called a cousin of the elephant, due to their close relation, and was one of the last in a line of mammoth species.

The species coexisted with humans during the Pleistocene epoch and is believed to have disappeared from its mainland range about 10,000 years ago due to a combination of hunting and climate change. Secluded members of its population remained on the St. Paul and Wrangel islands up until 4,000 years ago.