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Wooly Mammoth: Yea or Nay?


Bioengineering is a pretty exciting topic. Yes, it’s also a controversial one, but it offers great fodder for classroom discussion!

Take this question, for example. Should wooly mammoths be brought back from extinction through genetic engineering? This is an important question, because now, scientists are closer than ever to being able to make this a reality.

Wooly mammoths last walked the earth during the Pleistocene era—our last ice age. These mammals could tower up to thirteen feet high, with huge tusks extending even further—some as long as 15 feet! They were herbivorous giants, meaning they only ate plants. Those intimidating-looking tusks? Wooly mammoths definitely used them to fend off predators, but they mostly used them for digging for food covered by dirt and snow.

Until recently, scientists thought that we could only see echoes of wooly mammoths in fossil records and their closest living relatives, African and Asian elephants. All that changed with the arrival of CRISPR, a bacteria based protein that allows scientists to “edit” genomes.

In fall of 2015, scientists took DNA from wooly mammoth remains that had been preserved in ice for thousands of years, and spliced, or combined, them with DNA from elephants. The result? Viable wooly mammoth genes—something the world hasn’t seen for more than 4,000 years!

Does this mean we’ll get to see wooly mammoths in the wild anytime soon? Not quite. Being able to bring wooly mammoth DNA “back to life” is a huge first step, but there’s a long way to go before we can completely reconstruct the wooly mammoth’s genome, let alone figure out how to bring a wooly mammoth embryo to term. Scientifically and ethically, we’re still having conversations about this—is it right to bring back an extinct species? If we have the ability, how do we make sure that we’re reconstructing genes in appropriate, humane ways?

This is what’s so exciting about the cutting edge of science—not only are we discovering new tools and knowledge, but we’re still actively figuring out the best way to use them.

We explore this wide new world with the forthcoming book from Nomad Press, Bioengineering: Discover How Nature Inspires Human Designs.

photo credit: FunkMonk




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