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Pleistocene Park: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Image credit: Thomas Quine, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Popular Mechanics reports, “Bringing Back the Wooly Mammoth Is One Big Genetic Gamble, Scientists Say.” Pleistocene Park, as it’s called, is the brainchild of Sergey Zimov in 1997, 50 square miles of Siberia are to be returned to the Pleistocene — 25,000 years ago, during the Ice Age. (See sources hereherehere, and here.)

But how, and why? Strangely, as glaciers slowly ground over North America, producing the Great Lakes, Siberia sported vast grasslands in which the apex herbivore was the wooly mammoth. Like the bison of the American plains, the mammoth modified its environment to remove the trees and keep it a productive grassland, the “mammoth steppe.” The last mammoth died on Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia, some 4,000 years ago. But not before leaving frozen carcasses in the permafrost of Siberia, which were so well preserved that we have stories of stranded explorers subsisting on mammoth steaks. It is to these ancient TV dinners that we owe the rediscovery of the genome of an extinct species of cold-adapted elephant. 

Well, in recreating an extinct species, what else would researchers choose — the passenger pigeon that crowded the Appalachian forests, the thylacine wolf that preyed on Australian marsupials, or the half-zebra quagga that had roamed the South African plains? For all these animals, their habitat had been taken over by humans, and it is doubtful that they would ever survive in the wild again. But the mammoth lived in Siberia, in one of the least inhabited places on earth, and likely to stay uninhabited. If ever there was a place to regain prehistoric paradise, this was it.

Getting Started

How is one to restart an extinct species? Isn’t this the chicken-and-egg problem in spades?

The idea is to recreate some of the DNA from the sequencing of frozen mammoths, and inject it into an Asian elephant egg to produce a half-elephant half-mammoth hybrid. Once a viable embryo is made, further CRISPR-Cas9 splicing can increase the percentage of mammoth DNA to produce 3/4 and 7/8 “mammophants.” Then by degrees one approaches true mammoths. Many challenges present themselves, not least is finding which hybrids are viable and which are stillborn. The gestation of an Asian elephant is 22 months and many trials are needed. This will be an expensive and lengthy process.

Wouldn’t one of the other extinct species be a whole lot easier to recreate? Why choose a mammoth?

A Mission to Save the Planet

Zimov doesn’t want to just recreate the Pleistocene, but in an echo of the commercial possibilities outlined in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, he wants to save the planet. In a world devoid of religion, global climate change (GCC) has risen to fill the need. The earth has a fever, and billions of dollars are being spent on antipyretics such as lithium batteries, giant windmills, carbon dioxide sequestration, and hydrogen fuels. If Zimov can link up to this powerful liturgy, his funding, if not his park, will be secure. And so he proposed that mammoths did not just spread poop across the steppe, distributing micronutrients, but they also cooled the planet, hence, the Ice Age.

How could a mammoth cool the planet, by flapping its ears?

That’s a peculiar feature of permafrost. It’s cold 365 days of the year. Cold enough that the methane gas, produced by methanogen bacteria slowly decomposing plant material, can form a special water ice mixture called a “clathrate.” Think of this as God’s bottled gas supply, existing in the bottom of oceans near gas seeps and in the polar permafrost. The GCC liturgy views methane as a powerful greenhouse gas, despite the fact that more abundant water vapor has already blocked all the infrared radiation that methane might potentially block, and despite the fact that methane is destroyed by ultraviolet light in less than a year. So GCC computer divinations warn the devout that should global warming begin to melt the permafrost, it would release all the methane and cause the runaway heat death of the planet.

Zimov Saw His Chance 

If mammoths can suppress the aneorobic production of methane, the melting of clathrates, or the aerobic decomposition into carbon dioxide, they can suppress global warming. If the actions of grazing and trampling removed the light-reflecting snow, if they ripped up the insulating tundra moss, the ground would freeze harder than ever before, locking up the carbon. It was a divine nexus of commercial interests, genetic progress, and planetary salvation. What could possibly go wrong?

Ecologist and conservation biologist Douglas McCauley isn’t so sure. We are recreating and reintroducing an invasive species because we think we understand the ecology of the mammoth steppe and in particular, its demise. But what if we have it wrong? What if mammoths destroy the steppe instead of improving it? What if they magnify the melting and destruction of permafrost instead of mitigating it? And what if some of the predators that prey on mammoths become mammoth pests? 

For example, suppose there is a disease like malaria that sickens 250 million people every year and kills 600,000 and this disease finds mammoths to be perfect carriers. Would not the massive mosquito invasion every summer make it inhospitable for humans? Ecology is a very intricate subject, and predicting the outcome of ecological experiments that have not been tried for 5,000 years is sheer hubris.

What’s more, the idea that all the information in a species is contained in its DNA is quite wrong. Epigenetics plays a far more important role than anyone realized a decade ago. The author of a piece in The Atlantic notes that elephants are social animals, and survive because they learn the skills they need from their mothers. Even more importantly, the womb is more than a vat of chemicals, but a learning experience for infant mammoths. Yet clones have no mothers, and surrogate wombs are either tanks or female African elephants. Like the elephant Horton in Dr. Seuss’ children’s book, this work will not hatch mammoths, but at best, elephants.

More to the genetics point, the same technologies would make even more profit for the breeding of humans. The success of Pleistocene Park would be rapidly transformed into Brave New World.