Genetic de-extinction projects will bring back Mammoths

The sub-discipline of species de-extinction is an odd and innovative area of cutting edge genetic editing, manipulation and retrieval few people might know about.

De-extinction of Mammoths at the service of the future’s past

Until more recently the subject was relegated to fiction and the imagination of a few creative writers most notably Michael Crichton with “Jurassic Park”. Living in an era of biological revolution the Science in science-fiction is increasing traction and a subject that seemed far-fetched some decades ago is now evermore tangible. Nevertheless as any investigation it is important to distinguish fantasy from reality, therefore through this discussion paper we will identify hurdles this theme attracts. As we investigate this subject we find that de-extinction’s projects initial “raison d’être” was difficult to justify beyond Science’s cavalier attitude towards progress nonetheless we will discover that this subject has revealed many surprising prospects for us and the future of our environment.

Furthermore due to our ecological burden due this has led to the dramatic and recent losses of many species. Coinciding with the sixth mass extinction (mostly driven by humans) de-extinction might have the tools to minimize this impact.

Key players[a]

Within the realm of de-extinction there are many contributors, 3 personalities stand-out today.

  • George Church; director of the largest research lab at Harvard is one of the “founding fathers” of synthetic biology.
  • Beth Shapiro; Professor at the University of California Santa Cruz her research is aimed towards an increase understanding on how populations and species change through time.
  • Jack Horner; Famous for his contribution towards Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park” he is a world renowned paleontologist and is particularly interested by dinosaur evolution and ecology.

Key projects

You will be surprised to learn that de-extinction has already occurred and succeeded[b]. A first success came from an  Bucado (Pyrenean ibex, 2003) resurrected from frozen cells and another from ancient retroviruses (HERVs, 2006).

There are de-extinction projects active today nonetheless the following ventures listed below stand out by the media attention they have received.

  • Passenger Pigeon; 25-40% of the whole bird population in eastern United states was believed to made of passenger pigeons until driven to extinction by human activity (mostly hunting) in 1914. Known for flying in flocks of thousands if not millions at a time this lead to the break down of the limbs of many trees all over the woods. Due to their population size they had an destructive quality which had the paradoxical power of re-equilibrating ecosystems. It is for this reason the “Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback” was started in 2012 by a geneticist named Ben Novak.


  • Mammoth; Mammoth de-extinction is the most publicized revival project to catch attention and has many advantages over other projects. For starters it can catch the public’s imagination, secondly if introduced the specie could potentially change the Siberian permafrost structure leading to an re-introduction of new species and land fertilization[c]!


But resurrecting an Mammoth is also “Fake News” as the research involves an alternation of a current genetic code (Asian Elephants). An 100% ancient Mammoth will therefore remain within the realm of science-fiction. The “Woolly Mammoth Revival” project has many problems that have not been resolved but the project has the potential to be the most ecological and impactful. Furthermore it could increase the geographic scope of elephants worldwide. Other de-extinction projects; the mysterious Tasmanian tiger, the astonishing Lazarus frog and the elusive Yangtze River Dolphin[d]


Many hurdles will need to be resolved for an full de-extinction project to be successful[e]

First, even though we are living through genetic revolution with CRISPR the amount of editing required for an full genomic reconfiguration remains utterly momentous for an full genome recodification. Secondly, there remains many unknowns within genetic transcription and translation. Many post-transcriptional process have revealed to be much more complex than initially thought with each species having their own specificities. Thirdly, complexities within the embryonic process and gestation is a whole field needed to be solved [1].

Added to that ancient DNA deals with many “holes”[f] and puzzling them out will require an exponential push of statistical and probabilistic analysis. Now imagine that we have successfully resurrected an animal (an impressive feat), social and psychological (ethological) challenges will remain. Animals have innate and taught behaviors. Who will teach these specific behaviors? And what do they consist of? These problems will remain to be resolved. And finally finding an geographic zone possible for reintroduction is also problematic as new species have appeared and territories initially theirs have been removed.


Why No Dino

After now acquiring some insight on the hurdles facing de-extinction you can now imagine that the longer an specie has been extinct the harder it can be to resurrect it. Starting from the problematic of DNA, the upper limit of DNA conservation is around 100’000 years at moderate ambient temperature, dinosaurs have been gone for millions of years! So imagine the quality of sample we could aspire to find, let alone the ethological and territorial problems dinosaurs could create…

But all hope is not lost! Similar to “Woolly Mammoth Revival” project “Creating a Dino-Chicken”[g] (activating Dinosaur traits in Chickens)[h] has the advantage of only requiring the reactivation of dinosaur genes currently present in every chicken. The challenge will be to identify “where” to activate them.


From my view “resurrection” from de-extinction will occur as no challenge seems eventually insurmountable. The difficulty is to pinpoint when we could hypothetically see an Mammoth or Tasmanian tiger. As de-extinction is an sister project from the wider field of genetic retrieval, editing and implementation my prediction will be that de-extinction will be the last tangible crown jewel from other achievements we will see on its path.

“Animal GMO’s” experimentation has already occurred and succeeded [2] so an extension towards aggregating ecological advantageous traits is only a stretch ahead. Genetic modifications can help prevent species extinction caused by climatic change or infectious diseases[i], and de-extinction could help us gain such insights. It will possibly be followed by “Human GMO’s”, I could easily imagine re-codifying our genomes similar to vaccines as to remove “malicious codes” which lead to tumors or cancers or even aggregating “strong” genes such as for an increase of muscle fiber.

De-extinction on my roadmap would be the ultimate step because of the added difficulties stated above. Technically and socially it will require a deeper understanding of all that is known within molecular biology and a political agreed consensus on the acceptability of such tinkering beyond already ethical challenging subjects. In other words, the day you’ll see a mammoth (some version of it) with your bare eyes in a mammoth park you will have witness a staple of human technological and political ingeniously never reached before.



  1. E. Mullin, Animals Set Survival Record Inside Artificial Womb
  2. A. Regalado, On the Horns of the GMO Dilemma
  3. H. Pearson, Ancient human virus resurrected
  4. G. Church, George Church: De-Extinction Is a Good Idea
  5. Revive and
  6. M. O. H. S. Lucia Martinelli, De-extinction: a novel and remarkable case of bio-objectification
  7. C. Fitch, Back to life: the world of de-extinction
  8. H. Pilcher, Reviving wolly mammoths will take more than two years
  9. T. M. Powledge, De-extinction is fake news
  10. B. Shapiro, How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction, Princeton University Press, 2015, p. 240.

[a] De-extinction is an overlapping theme among these personalities as they are involved in different projects non necessarily related to that field.

[b] Success is relative, the bucado died immediately after birth

[c] Part of a project of Pleistocene Park a.k.a Mammoth Park

[d] Many projects are started because of their emotional legacy although other less glamourous species could have a stronger ecological impact

[e] The concept of success widely differs among de-extinction Scientists

[f] DNA Gaps

[g] Proposed by Jack Horner

[h] Chickens are closely related of Dinosaurs

[i] An infectious disease usually decimates the last remnants of a specie

One Comment

  1. AlexR says: