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Woolly Mammoths Could Return From Extinction In Two Years

Most of my knowledge about mammoths comes from Ice Age - they're huge, they're hairy, they have huge tusks and they're extinct...

But not for long it seems - scientists at Harvard (yes Harvard, not someone in their bedroom cooking up a conspiracy theory) have been working on bringing them back to life and they say they're almost there. In about two years woolly mammoths will be roaming the Earth, they claim.

It's been almost five thousand years since mammoths were wiped out. No one has ever managed to bring a species that's been extinct for thousands of years back to life before.
So have are they managing to do it?

Using tissue from preserved mammoths - like baby mammoth Lyuba, who is on display in the Natural History Museum, Swedish scientists replicated the DNA and American scientists are building on that. Any missing information they fill with elephant DNA - elephants and mammoths are cousins and as close as you can find to a woolly mammoth today.

Lyuba at the National History Museum. Credit: PA

It's exactly what they did on Jurassic Park to de-extinct dinosaurs - they used DNA that they found preserved and spliced it with frog DNA. Of course, in that franchise the dinosaurs run free terrorising people... so hopefully that won't happen with the mammoths. The idea of them running round Boston - the city closest to Harvard - would make an excellent film but not so fun for real life.

So the scientists are planning to splice the mammoth DNA and cut 'n' paste it onto elephant stem cells. Then they will get the nucleus of an elephant egg and replace it with the hybrid mammoth cells and then they will put it in an artificial womb. A few months later there will a baby mammoth!

Credit: PA

They were planning to use a surrogate mother, but it would have been too dangerous. You'd be pretty surprised if you were an elephant and gave birth to a mammoth.

Professor George Church, who heads up the team at Harvard, said they weren't there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years. His team have already sorted through some of the DNA, and have identified which ones affect ear size, fat levels and blood - and have already edited them onto the elephant cells.

"We're working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and basically trying to establish embryogenesis [developing an embryo] in the lab," he said.

"The list of edits affects things that contribute to the success of elephants in cold environments."

All great, but still doens't answer what are they planning to do with the mammoths once they've made them.

A Look At Mammoths

So what do we know about mammoths? The name is a bit misleading - they were big but not much bigger than anything else. They're about the size of a modern African elephant. Nine to eleven feet tall and weighed around six tonnes. But unlike elephants they had a thick coat of fur and shorter ears - a cold-weather adaptation as it stopped frostbite and heat loss.

You can tell how old a mammoth was by looking at it's tusks. Much like knowing how old a tree is by counting the rings, you can tell the same from a mammoth.

Prehistoric humans drew cave paintings of mammoths and used their bones and tusks to build things with - back then we had a close relationship with them and possibly hunted them. But incredibly we didn't even know that mammoths existed until the first skeleton was found in Estonia in 1799, and they thought it was a creature that burrowed underground!

Words Laura Hamilton

Featured Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

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