The return of mammoths?

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Tessa K
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The return of mammoths?

Post by Tessa K » Mon Sep 13, 2021 4:14 pm

OK, so they have a conservation excuse but just because we can, should we? There are some good reasons not to at the end of the article.
Ten thousand years after woolly mammoths vanished from the face of the Earth, scientists are embarking on an ambitious project to bring the beasts back to the Arctic tundra. ... The scientists have set their initial sights on creating an elephant-mammoth hybrid by making embryos in the laboratory that carry mammoth DNA. ... The project is framed as an effort to help conserve Asian elephants by equipping them with traits that allow them to thrive in vast stretches of the Arctic known as the mammoth steppe.
https://www.theguardian.com/science/202 ... um=twitter

Anyone got any suggestions about other things we could bring back from extinction for good reasons?

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Re: The return of mammoths?

Post by Fishnut » Mon Sep 13, 2021 4:29 pm

It feels like such a stupid waste of money. The tundra is melting and they want to bring back mammoths?! There are tonnes of species that are vulnerable to extinction that we could save but instead they're going to spend $15 million trying to bring back something that's been gone 10k years (not counting the Wrangel Island population).

The last common ancestor of mammoths and modern elephants was about 6 mya. For comparison, the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees is probably about the same (though there's much wider confidence intervals for the date and fossils may be pushing that date back, though there's also evidence of interbreeding until around 4mya. Anyone proposing to bring back a Neanderthal back by integrating its DNA with a chimp would be laughed at so why are people seriously entertaining the idea of bringing back a mammoth?
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Re: The return of mammoths?

Post by Trinucleus » Mon Sep 13, 2021 9:25 pm

Tessa K wrote:
Mon Sep 13, 2021 4:14 pm
OK, so they have a conservation excuse but just because we can, should we? There are some good reasons not to at the end of the article.
Ten thousand years after woolly mammoths vanished from the face of the Earth, scientists are embarking on an ambitious project to bring the beasts back to the Arctic tundra. ... The scientists have set their initial sights on creating an elephant-mammoth hybrid by making embryos in the laboratory that carry mammoth DNA. ... The project is framed as an effort to help conserve Asian elephants by equipping them with traits that allow them to thrive in vast stretches of the Arctic known as the mammoth steppe.
https://www.theguardian.com/science/202 ... um=twitter

Anyone got any suggestions about other things we could bring back from extinction for good reasons?
Definitely not velociraptors

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Re: The return of mammoths?

Post by IvanV » Mon Sep 13, 2021 11:29 pm

Tessa K wrote:
Mon Sep 13, 2021 4:14 pm
Anyone got any suggestions about other things we could bring back from extinction for good reasons?
Thylacines might be useful, if for example they were able to keep down some of the introduced species that are causing such damage, that are of a kind a predator like that might like to eat. Rabbits, rats, etc, for example. Sadly they would probably be no more able to eat cane toads than crocodiles.

Geoffrey Orbell, who rediscovered the presumed extinct takahe, a NZ endemic species of flightless moorhen weighing up to 4kg, had the idea of trying to restore its population to much greater levels, because he fancied eating it for Christmas dinner. But in the succeeding 70 years, the population has only recently recovered to what it was when it was rediscovered, around 400. Although suffering all the usual problems of NZ native flightless birds - massive loss of habitat to farming, predation by dogs, stoats, etc, the main recent additional threat on top of that has been competition from the expanding range of introduced deer, which eat the particular kinds of grass the takahe likes to eat. So deer control has been important to their recent recovery. Still a long way from being available for Christmas dinner.

I have no idea why Orbell thought takahe might be good to eat. He is reported to have released the ones he captured, not eaten them. And I suppose few people have had the chance to find out for a very long time (there are 4 reports of them being accidentally shot.) The closely related, though much smaller pukeko, isn't eaten, presumably because it isn't worth it. I had some kind of moorhen for lunch when visiting the floating villages of Inle Lake in Myanmar, and it wasn't very nice. No one was eating giant coot in the high Andes, at least not that I noticed. (Though here's a recipe for coot sausage from North America, recognising it is difficult to make coot edible, and attempting to make it so.) In the Falklands, they have an enormous population of sheldgeese, which are considered something of a pest, but rarely eat them as apparently it is a major culinary challenge to turn it into something you'd want to eat. I have not been much impressed by mallard or greylag goose in comparison to the domesticated forms, either: they are very tough and the best option (to my mind) is to slow cook them in a casserole, which doesn't really compare with roast domestic duck/goose.

Though it does raise the issue of whether we might want to try and bring back moas from extinction. After all, they became extinct precisely because the Maori liked to eat them. So maybe they are really tasty. It seems possible that large ratites are in general tasty. I've eaten ostrich and that's tasty. I have some indirect evidence that rhea is tasty.* And maybe that further includes Malagasy elephant birds, as they were also hunted to extinction. The closest living relative of the elephant bird is believed to be the kiwi, that they diverged from them about 50m years ago. However the latest intelligence on ratite phylogeny is that suprisingly moas are more closely related to tinamous, a South American genus of bird, than kiwis, and that's probably even older than the kiwi/elephant bird divergence. So unfortunately the extinct large ratites are probably one of the harder things to restore.

*One day I was cycling across the desert on a gravel road in northern Argentina, in Catamarca province. I had seen only about 3 cars all day (though some very kind people had invited me me into their camp to share some barbecued goat for lunch) when I encountered a pick-up with guns sticking out in all directions. I was slightly worried for a moment, but when they stopped they seemed friendly enough. They asked if I'd seen any ostriches (avestruces), using the local colloquial term for rheas, correctly ñandúes in Spanish. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the last rhea I had seen was about 3000km away, in Patagonian Chile, so I was unable to help them. Later that evening, I treated myself to dinner out in a simple restaurant in the horribly run-down and remote small town of Andalgalá. (I'd seen bare-bottomed children running around outside single-roomed breeze-block buildings with sheets of corrugated stuff as roofs, on the edge of town. There was a grocer in town with nothing on its shelves but one brand of biscuits. I think various local mining projects had closed or been automated resulting in massive unemployment.) I mentioned the encounter to the waiter. He replied that it was of course illegal to hunt the ostriches as they are protected and rather rare. But, he said, you could hardly blame them, especially in the present economic conditions (it was during the Argentine Great Depression of 1998-2002), as they are so delicious.

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Re: The return of mammoths?

Post by Bird on a Fire » Mon Sep 13, 2021 11:45 pm

There's a well-referenced, somewhat sceptical Twitter thread here https://twitter.com/ToriHerridge/status ... 23656?s=19

As discussed (possibly ad nauseam) in the rewilding thread, reintroducing large herbivores into habitats that previously had them can be beneficial for wider biodiversity and carbon sequestration. That's a reasonable end-goal IMHO, as while there are other non-extinct herbivores that could and are being reintroduced, evidence from Africa suggests that the pachyderm niche is pretty unique and transformative. Drastically increasing grazing of Arctic steppe could seriously reduce permafrost melting, which is one of the most worrying climate feedbacks on the horizon.

OTOH, it'll take ages (multiple human generations before there's viable numbers) and at least with current tech they'll be fake GM mammoths, more akin to livestock bred for a particular purpose than Jurassic Park. A term like "biogeoengineering" might be more accurate than the much-abused "rewilding".

$15m seems like basically nothing in the grand scheme of things, and it doesn't sound like the money is likely to come out of conservation budgets. I reckon it's a pretty cool aspirational idea, but priorities need to be
1) stopping fossil fuels asap
2) protecting wild herbivore populations
3) bolstering wild native herbivore populations, eg by captive breeding and/or translocation

and only then faffing about making funky GM Arctic mutant elephants.

Pretty cool though. I dunno. I'm ambivalent.
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Re: The return of mammoths?

Post by Woodchopper » Tue Sep 14, 2021 1:45 am

Longer NYT article here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/13/scie ... h-DNA.html

It’s clear that all the money is coming from private sources:

“Frankly, I was planning on slogging along at a slow pace,” Dr. Church said. But in 2019, he was contacted by Ben Lamm, the founder of the Texas-based artificial intelligence company Hypergiant, who was intrigued by press reports of the de-extinction idea.

Mr. Lamm visited Dr. Church’s lab, and the two hit it off. “After about a day of being in the lab and spending a lot of time with George, we were pretty passionate on pursuing this,” Mr. Lamm said.

Mr. Lamm began setting up Colossal to support Dr. Church’s work, all the way from tinkering with DNA to eventually placing “a functional mammoth,” as Dr. Hysolli calls it, in the wild.

The company’s initial funding comes from investors ranging from Climate Capital, a private equity firm that backs efforts to lower carbon emissions, to the Winklevoss twins, known for their battles over Facebook and investments in Bitcoin.
The technology that is planned to be developed has far wider implications:

The scientists will try to make an elephant embryo with its genome modified to resemble an ancient mammoth. To do this, the scientists will need to remove DNA from an elephant egg and replace it with the mammoth-like DNA.

But no one has ever harvested eggs from an elephant. In case it doesn’t work, Dr. Hysolli and her colleagues will also investigate turning ordinary elephant tissue into stem cells, which could possibly then be coaxed to develop into embryos in the lab.

[…]

Initially, Dr. Church envisioned implanting embryos into surrogate female elephants. But he eventually soured on the idea. Even if he could figure out in vitro fertilization for elephants — which no one has done before — building a herd would be impractical, since he would need so many surrogates.

Instead, Dr. Church decided to make an artificial mammoth uterus lined with uterine tissue grown from stem cells. “I’m not making a bold prediction this is going to be easy,” he said. “But everything up to this point has been relatively easy. Every tissue we’ve gone after, we’ve been able to get a recipe for.”

The idea has a few precedents. At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, researchers have developed a sealed bag that can support a fetal lamb for four weeks, for example. But Colossal will need to build an artificial uterus big enough to house a fetus for around two years, reaching a weight of 200 pounds.

“We are hopeful and confident that there will be technologies that come out of it that we can build individual business units out of,” Mr. Lamm said. “But in the short term, our focus is really just making those technologies that we know will speed up the process and the efficiency of not just bringing back the mammoth, but in the rewilding of the mammoth.”

Dr. Shapiro of U.C. Santa Cruz is skeptical about the company’s prospects. “It feels to me that a mammoth is a long way in the future,” she said. Nevertheless, she applauded the company’s launch and hopes it will deliver scientific advances that could help species that are endangered but not yet extinct.

For example, scientists may be able to use Colossal’s advances to save species under threat from diseases by endowing them with genes for resistance to a pathogen, she said. Other species might be enriched with genes to better tolerate heat and drought brought on by climate change.

“I worry that for lots of species today, the pace of climate change and the pace of habitat degradation is such that evolution isn’t going to be able to save them,” Dr. Shapiro said. “We need to intervene even more.”
If successful, the development of artificial wombs and embryos would have massive implications. It would presumably be possible to repopulate the planet with creatures threatened with extinction (or revive other extinct species).

It seems to me that as well as conservation there might be much commercial potential for genetically edited animals that have been grown in artificial wombs.

If it’s even feasible now then other companies may succeed at some point where this one fails.

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Re: The return of mammoths?

Post by Allo V Psycho » Tue Sep 14, 2021 8:35 am

At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, researchers have developed a sealed bag that can support a fetal lamb for four weeks, for example.
Reference here if anyone is interested.

https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms1 ... //tuppu.fi

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Re: The return of mammoths?

Post by Fishnut » Tue Sep 14, 2021 8:42 am

Bird on a Fire wrote:
Mon Sep 13, 2021 11:45 pm
$15m seems like basically nothing in the grand scheme of things, and it doesn't sound like the money is likely to come out of conservation budgets
I agree with this, but I guess I just keep seeing these sorts of pie-in-the-sky "conservation" projects spending a few million here and a few million there which adds up to real money. And yes, private investors have the right to spend their money how they like, and I know that climate change and ecological destruction isn't going to be reversed at the hands of a few rich philanthropic individuals but I just find myself increasingly frustrated at seeing these projects with really very little chance of success getting funding and publicity while more low-key projects get nothing despite having much higher chances of positive impact.

I also get frustrated at how all these different types of projects get smushed together in the press. Take this article about rewilding - it leads with the mammoth project, as if creating genetically engineered elephants is in any way equivalent to providing greater protections to goshawks.
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Re: The return of mammoths?

Post by Tessa K » Tue Sep 14, 2021 12:34 pm

Fishnut wrote:
Tue Sep 14, 2021 8:42 am
Bird on a Fire wrote:
Mon Sep 13, 2021 11:45 pm
$15m seems like basically nothing in the grand scheme of things, and it doesn't sound like the money is likely to come out of conservation budgets
I agree with this, but I guess I just keep seeing these sorts of pie-in-the-sky "conservation" projects spending a few million here and a few million there which adds up to real money. And yes, private investors have the right to spend their money how they like, and I know that climate change and ecological destruction isn't going to be reversed at the hands of a few rich philanthropic individuals but I just find myself increasingly frustrated at seeing these projects with really very little chance of success getting funding and publicity while more low-key projects get nothing despite having much higher chances of positive impact.

I also get frustrated at how all these different types of projects get smushed together in the press. Take this article about rewilding - it leads with the mammoth project, as if creating genetically engineered elephants is in any way equivalent to providing greater protections to goshawks.
It is so much easier to chuck a few million at something with media appeal like mammoths than to deal with real climate change factors like taking on the petrochemical industry or high-impact farming etc.

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