The recent publication of the first comprehensive analysis of the woolly mammoth genome by Vincent Lynch, PhD, assistant professor of human genetics, and colleagues made headlines around the world. You can read more about the study here.
Today, join Lynch on Reddit as he hosts an Ask Me Anything, where he answers questions about the mammoth genome and evolution in general.
ScienceLife had a few questions of our own about the futuristic plans some people have for these prehistoric giants.
You’re in the Department of Human Genetics. How did you get involved in woolly mammoth research?
Vincent Lynch: By accident. We were interested in the genetics of how elephants evolved to be so large, because the closest living relative of the elephant is the hyrax, which is groundhog sized. There’s a publically available African elephant genome. But when you compare it to the hyrax, you can’t tell if genetic changes happened in all elephants or only African elephants.
So I emailed Webb Miller, who set up the initial mammoth sequencing that happened a few years ago, because mammoths are the sister lineage to African elephants and are closely related to Asian elephants. By comparing hyrax, African and Asian elephant, and mammoth genomes, we thought we could identify changes that are unique to the common ancestor of elephants.
Webb had lots of data, including two mammoths and three Asian elephants sequenced to very high coverage. My lab specializes in analyzing genome data in a way that lets us ask: what are all the genes that have mammoth-specific substitutions, and what do those genes do? It went from there.
Your study has been all over the news. The one question that keeps popping up is what this means for resurrecting the woolly mammoth. What’s your take?
VL: It’s fair to say that our work is a step toward resurrecting the woolly mammoth, because in order to do that the first thing you need is a genome. The technology is just coming online to be able to do something like this, and eventually someone will be technically able to do it. The question then is: if you’re technically able to do something, should you? I think no.
VL: There are a lot of reasons. Mammoths are extinct. The environment in which they lived is already changed. One argument is that tundras evolved with mammoths, and their absence changed that ecosystem. If we bring mammoths back maybe we can restore that ecosystem to its pre-human state. But the assumption is what it used to be like is better than what it’s currently like, which is a pretty big assumption. The arctic hasn’t seen mammoths in thousands of years. If we put them back there’s even a chance it could make the environment worse.
Which isn’t exactly in the best shape it’s ever been…
VL: Right. Mammoths lived where it’s cold, and the world is warming. We have tons of animals which are in the process of going extinct right now, and lots of those animals live in cold places which are becoming warmer. So why would you bring something back which lives in an environment that might not even be there anymore? It’s basically just to have mammoths be in zoos. It’s a vanity project.
Still, bringing a woolly mammoth back sounds really cool, doesn’t it?
VL: Here’s the thing. Elephants are very complex social creatures. They have complex social structures and complex behaviors that they need to learn. Even if we bring back a genetically perfect woolly mammoth, who is this mammoth going to learn how to be a mammoth from? Its mother will be an Asian elephant, and Asian elephants don’t know what it’s like to be a mammoth.
Will the mother recognize that the mammoth baby is actually not an Asian elephant baby? Will she care for it? Elephants are really smart and form strong social bonds. Do you want to bring something back that has a chance of being rejected by every member of its closest possible kind? It would be a really lonely life.
And even if you were to bring back a herd of mammoths, none of those mammoths are going to know how to be mammoths. They’re not going to learn everything de novo. So maybe you just end up with a bunch of giant things roaming around northern Siberia that misbehave because they’ve never had a chance to learn social norms.
How are people going about trying to resurrect the mammoth?
VL: The way to resurrect the woolly mammoth is to use genome editing techniques to edit the Asian elephant genome to look like a mammoth genome. This would be done in an embryo and implanted into an Asian elephant surrogate.
But how many edits are needed before you call an Asian elephant a mammoth? I’m not an essentialist, but I would say you need all of them. You need to put every single change that’s mammoth-specific into an Asian elephant. And you also have to take every Asian elephant-specific change and make that mammoth-like too. Which means if you don’t change all the genes in an Asian elephant to be mammoth-like, you don’t really have a mammoth. You have mammoth-Asian elephant hybrid. It’s not an Asian elephant, it’s not a mammoth. It’s something else. Should we be trying to create these something elses just because we can?
Do you think someone will do it?
VL: Someone’s going to do it. If not George Church, then someone else. It’s really a question of whether they should.
What should we doing instead?
VL: We should be doing something about the animals that are still here. There’s a bunch of if’s and but’s and or’s in efforts to resurrect woolly mammoths. There are lots of species on the edge of extinction, and we should be trying to save those. There are way more concrete things we can be doing now.
Why do you think people are so interested in mammoths?
VL: I think it’s because evoke a kind of deep collective memory of our Pleistocene past. Even our ancestors were taken with them because some of the earliest forms of art (cave paintings) are of mammoths. It must be some deep archetype we are drawn to.