In what may be the best worst idea of our generation, a Harvard University research team has successfully spliced woolly mammoth DNA into living cells collected from an Asian elephant. A logical person might wonder why on earth this would be a thing, and the answer is pretty plain: because researchers want to, eventually, see if they can produce a wooly mammoth clone. The woolly mammoth became extinct 4,000 years ago, and the Asian elephant is its closest living relative, hence the choice.

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Under the leadership of researcher and professor of genetics George Church, the team seeks to explore whether injecting certain genes will bring out recognizable woolly mammoth traits. The scientists didn’t inject all of genes into the elephant genome, though. This is just the first tiny baby step in a long journey on the way to figuring out whether it’s possible to grow a woolly mammoth. The team started with just 14 genes, selecting the ones most representative of the hairy, cold-enduring traits of the extinct beast.

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If their initial experiments work and the genes they’ve selected manage to coax out the physical characteristics the team is hoping for—such as long hair and the accumulation of subcutaneous fat—then the researchers will be thrilled. The next step would be an attempt to convert the cells into an embryo and implant it into an artificial womb. That is to say, the next step would lead directly to trying to grow a woolly mammoth-like creature in their lab.

Church explained to Popular Science that “there is more work to do” but says his team will publish their findings in a scientific journal as soon as they have enough information to share.


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