Some scientists want to genetically engineer elephants to be more like woolly mammoths. Could this save elephants from extinction and save us from climate change? Resurrecting megafauna sounds like a monster movie plot, but mammoths have the potential to save—not squish—the world. Bringing back mammoths could help us in more dimensions than you might expect—but should we?
Bringing Back Wooly Mammoths
Published May 30, 2018
Onscreen : This guy wants to bring woolly mammoths back.
George Church : We're merging pieces of the DNA from ancient mammoth specimens with modern living elephant cells. And then, if possible, we'll make those into elephant-mammoth hybrids.
Onscreen : This would be groundbreaking. And some say restoring woolly mammoths could fight climate change. Here's their argument. Locked deep in the Arctic permafrost are huge stores of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane.
Nikita Zimov : There is a lot of carbon in the permafrost.
Church : If it released, it would be more than the sum of all the carbon in the atmosphere right now.
Onscreen : Which could accelerate climate change. Keeping permafrost frozen means those gases can't escape. And mammoths, in theory, could help—first, by landscaping. Big grazers strip greenery—and the plants that bounce back fastest are grasses.
Church : It's a very natural thing for elephants all over the world to change their environment, favoring the grasses over the trees.
Onscreen : They also provide a crucial ingredient for grass growth that's rare in the Arctic: fertilizer.
Beth Shapiro : There's no reason to suspect that mammoths wouldn't have a similar, really important role.
Onscreen : Grasslands deflect summer sunlight, keeping the soil cool. But that's not enough to keep permafrost frozen.
Shapiro : Exposing that upper surface to the very cold winter air is critical.
Onscreen : Left alone, snow traps heat in the soil below.
Shapiro : But if the animals are there, they dig through that snow to get to whatever green grass is underneath.
Onscreen : Exposing the dirt to the cold air and freezing it.
Church : Mammoths are an opportunity to keep global warming from possibly spiraling out of control. And anything we can do to push that in the right direction is really great.
Onscreen : But not everyone agrees mammoths are the solution.
Shapiro : Science fiction isn't going to save us. Changing the way we act, the way we behave, the way we interact with the land around us, that's what we need to do.
Onscreen : Zimov agrees in part. He doesn't need mammoths to keep permafrost frozen. Any Arctic grazer will do.
Zimov : We have reindeer, horses, moose, muskox, bison, yaks.
Onscreen : But even if mammoths aren't an antidote to climate change, Church says creating elephant-mammoth hybrids would be good for Asian elephants (which are endangered).
Church : Just like we've now given bisons a whole new lease on life, making an elephant cold-resistant would probably save the species.
Onscreen : If it works, this approach might help other endangered species, altering their DNA, changing what they are to help them survive.
Shapiro : This technology, the ability to take genes from the past, put them into species that are alive today, has tremendous potential as a new tool for conservation.
Onscreen : Meaning that in some cases, genetic engineering might one day be the best bet for a wild future.
- Digital Production
- Tiffany Dill
- Production Assistance
- Ari Daniel
- Editorial Review
- Julia Cort
- CAN WE MAKE LIFE?
- Produced, and Directed by
- Larry Klein
- © WGBH Educational Foundation 2018
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- (main image: mammoth)
- © WGBH Educational Foundation 2018