It may seem outlandish to reach for such a goal. But, the work that is being done to help bring back this legendary extinct species may help play a part in fighting climate change—and may help the imperiled Asian elephant population recover from a deadly disease.
If healthy herds of mammoth repopulate the vast tracts of tundra and boreal forest in Eurasia and North America, they will overturn snow and plow over trees, to a much greater extent than any other animal could ever do. This gargantuan task would help return these Arctic regions to grasslands, which would decrease the ground temperature, and help stop the thawing of Arctic permafrost, and stall its impending release of billions of tons of greenhouse gasses.
Doing the necessary research to get to the development of a herd of thriving woollies will take many steps and many years. Yet there are three key organizations committed to working together to make this audacious plan a reality.
One of the world's leading innovators in genome editing is George Church. His team at Harvard has already identified the genes that made it possible for Woolly Mammoths to live in extreme cold. Using CRISPR, the team has also successfully transferred those genes into the DNA of Asian elephant cells in the lab.
Additional funding will make it possible for the scientists at the Church Lab to continue their research and eventually develop living elephants that have inherited key Woolly Mammoth genes. In turn, those genes would provide these elephants with the traits that make it possible to take up the ancient ecological role of the Woollies in the Arctic ecosystem.
In northeastern Siberia, Russian ecologist Sergey Zimov and his son Nikita are studying how the introduction of other large herbivores—like bison and horses—can change the tundra back into grasslands. To date, their work has been deemed successful and could provide an optimal home for the Woollies once they're successfully bred.
Revive & Restore, a non-profit group based in Sausalito, California, is taking initial responsibility for managing each step of the process and to also bring conservation benefits to imperiled Asian elephants along the way.
Revive & Restore introduced George Church to the Sergey Zimov and connected George with specialists in Asian elephant diseases. As a result, the Church Lab is also working on ways to stop a previously untreatable herpes virus that kills many young elephants today.