Bringing woolly mammoths back from extinction could help the environment

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American startup Colossal Biosciences has announced plans to bring back woolly mammoths, or animals like them, from extinction and into the icy landscape of the Siberian tundra.

Colossal received $ 15 million in initial funding to support research by Harvard geneticist George Church, among other work.

The proposed project is exciting, with laudable ambitions, but it is unclear whether this is a practical conservation strategy.

Colossal proposes to use CRISPR gene editing technology to modify embryos from Asian elephants (the mammoth’s closest living relative) to make their genomes resemble those of woolly mammoths.

The Asian elephant is an endangered species found in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Photo: Shutterstock

These embryos could then theoretically develop into elephant-mammoth hybrids (mammophants), with the appearance and behavior of extinct mammoths.

According to Colossal, the ultimate goal is to release herds of these mammoths into the Arctic, where they will fill the once-occupied mammoth ecological niche.

When mammoths disappeared from the Arctic around 4,000 years ago, shrubs took precedence over what were once grasslands.

Mammoth-like creatures could help restore this ecosystem by trampling on shrubs, knocking over trees, and fertilizing grasses with their droppings.

Theoretically, this could help reduce climate change.

If the current Siberian permafrost melts, it will release powerful greenhouse gases. Compared to the tundra, the grasslands could reflect more light and keep the soil cooler, which Colossal hopes will keep the permafrost from melting.

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While the prospect of reviving extinct species has long been discussed by groups such as Revive and Restore, advances in genome editing have now brought those dreams closer to reality.

But just because we have the tools to resurrect mammoth-like creatures, does that mean we should?

Siberian tundra landscape
Mammoth-like beasts with thick fur and dense fat would in theory be able to survive the harsh polar climate of the Siberian tundra. Photo: Shutterstock

A cause to consider

De-extinction is a controversial area. Critics called these practices “playing god” and accused scientists in favor of de-extinguishing pride.

A common concern is that the return of extinct species, whose ecological niches may no longer exist, disrupts existing ecosystems.

But when it comes to mammophants, this review lacks bite.

Colossal says it aims to recreate the steppe ecosystem (a large, flat grassland) that thrived in Siberia until around 12,000 years ago. It has been estimated that the total mass of plants and animals in the Siberian tundra is now 100 times less than that of the steppe.

Simply, this ecosystem is already compromised, and it is difficult to see how the reintroduction of mammophants would cause further damage.

The reintroduction of species can transform ecosystems for the better.

A well-known example is the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, which triggered a cascade of positive changes for local flora and fauna. Mammoths can do the same.

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Moreover, climate change is one of the great moral challenges of our time. Melting Siberian permafrost is expected to accelerate climate change and exacerbate ecological disaster.

This is such a serious problem that even ambitious projects with a low probability of success can be ethically justified. Often our moral intuitions are clouded when we consider new technologies and interventions.

But technologies that originally seemed creepy and unnatural can slowly become accepted and valued.

One tool that is sometimes used to overcome these tendencies is called the Inversion Test, which was originally developed by Oxford philosophers Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord as a way to combat status quo bias.

This test involves assuming that the new thing already exists, and the new proposition is to withdraw it.

Imagine that an endangered mammophant population currently inhabits Siberia, where it plays an important role in maintaining the ecosystem and protecting permafrost.

Few would say that attempts to save these mammoths are “immoral”.

So, while we welcome the efforts to save them in this hypothetical scenario, we should also welcome the efforts to bring them into real life.

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So, according to the rollover test, the main ethical objections to Colossal’s project should not be about its goals, but rather about its means.

The main ethical concerns

Let us examine two ethical concerns related to de-extinction.

The first is that de-extinction could distract attention from more profitable efforts to protect biodiversity or mitigate climate change.

The second concerns the possible moral risks that could arise if people begin to believe that extinction is not eternal.

1. Opportunity costs

Some critics of de-extinction projects argue that while de-extinction may be an admirable goal, in practice it is a waste of resources.

Even though newly modified mammoths contain mammoth TUSEN, there is no guarantee that these hybrids will adopt the behaviors of ancient mammoths.

For example, we inherit more than just TUSEN sequences from our parents. We inherit epigenetic changes, in which the environment around us can affect how these genes are regulated. We also inherit the microbiome from our parents (colonies of gut bacteria), which plays an important role in our behavior.

The behaviors that animals learn by observing other members of their species are also important. The first mammophants will not have such counterparts to learn.

Render of woolly mammoths on field.
If mammoth-like beasts were introduced to Siberia today, they would not have parents from whom to learn the behaviors. Photo: Shutterstock

And even if extinction programs are successful, they will likely cost more than saving existing species from extinction.

Programs can be a misuse of resources, especially if they attract funding that could have been spent on more promising projects.

The opportunity costs of extinguishing must be carefully considered.

As exciting as it may be to see herds of wild mammoths, we should not let this sight distract us from more profitable endeavors.

Having said that, we shouldn’t rule out extinguishing technologies altogether, either. Costs will eventually come down. In the meantime, some very expensive projects may be worth considering.

2. Wider implications for conservation

The second concern is more subtle.

Some environmentalists argue that once de-extinction is possible, the need to protect species from extinction will seem less urgent. Would we still be concerned about preventing extinctions if we could just reverse them at a later date?

Personally, however, we are not convinced by these concerns.

Extinction is currently irreversible, but humans continue to lead an era of mass extinction that shows no signs of slowing down. In other words, moving towards increasing extinctions is the status quo, and this status quo is not worth preserving.

Moreover, de-extinction is not the only conservation strategy that seeks to reverse otherwise irreversible losses.

For example, “rewilding” involves reintroducing locally extinct species into an ecosystem it once inhabited. If we welcome these efforts – and we should – then we should also welcome new strategies to restore lost species and damaged ecosystems.
The conversation


Julian Koplin, biomedical ethics researcher, Melbourne Law School and Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, The University of Melbourne and Christopher Gyngell, researcher in biomedical ethics, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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