The ethics of mammoth cloning: UPDATED

I wrote about the ethics of mammoth cloning for the Guardian’s Comment is Free pages. You can read what I think here.

A quick update: Although in this interview with the Naked Scientists, George Church directly discusses elephant surrogates, I’ve just heard on the grapevine that he now intends to only use artificial wombs. I’ve emailed him to find out if this is true. Will update as soon as he answers.

In the mean time, I’ve asked the editors to add in a ‘probably’ to add some necessary ambiguity over the use of Asian elephant surrogates.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. Would I want to see a cold-adapted Asian elephant in Siberia if no animals were involved in the experimentation? It raises a different set of ethical questions, and I’m still thinking about it.

But one thing it doesn’t change is my scepticism over this plan of action as a feasible tool to mitigate climate change. Artificial womb technology seems a long way off, extending the timescale over which we can expect to see a viable cold-adapted Asian elephant in the world.

Even *if* the reintroduction of cold-adapted Asian elephants could do what its proponents hope — and we don’t know that it will — the time taken to genetically engineer, and artificially gestate elephants in the numbers that would be required is going to be considerable. And I doubt we have that kind of time when it comes to climate change. I’d like to see some well-thought out data and modelling on this, rather than romantic daydreams.


George Church kindly and very patiently replied to my questions. What follows is some incredibly mind-blowing science and a number of extremely good points. I’m digesting them still, and I’ll leave you to make up your own mind…

The answer to your question is: Yes.  Someone may use a surrogate elephant mother, if the chances of success are high and the expected benefits for the species survival/diversity are high (for example, due to extended geographical range).  My group will be working hard on alternatives, but it would be premature to guess at the exact state of rapidly progressing reproductive technologies years in the future. 

Getting full mammalian development to work in vitro is important for may reasons (testing hypotheses, testing drugs, tissue, transplantation, developmental biology, etc.)  Most vertebrates develop outside of a parental body.  For mammals, there are at least two options: 1) running blood directly through an umbilicus or 2) running blood through a placental interface.  We just published some relevant new technologies: 1) CRISPR activators which allow epigenetic reprogramming  and 2) in situ sequencing which allows analysis such reprogramming for closeness of fit to natural equivalents, 3) CellNet software to decide on multiple regulatory adjustments.  Automation allows us to optimize numerous parameters simultaneously.  It is hard to estimate how long this will take, but we have been pleasantly surprised few times recently, with technology arriving far sooner and better than expected (e.g. next-gen sequencing and CRISPR).

“You and I seem well aligned on this [GC is referring to my op-ed CiF piece]. I would certainly prefer to not interfere with Asian elephant healthcare, except positively.   My lab’s success already in using CRISPR on Loxodonta fibroblasts has not hurt elephants and hopefully will help in understanding their biology.  The costs and quality are improving rapidly since the protocols are being debugged in the context of experiments focused on human and mouse.  We are exploring methods to go from mammalian stems cells to embryos to babies, with inexpensive automated processes and high efficiency. If this works for mouse and pigs, then similar endeavors could be made for elephants.  This should help (rather than hurt) reproductive efforts for these precious species.  If we are successful in making cold-resistant versions of Asian elephants, then that might further help conservation efforts by allowing them to occupy locations with very low human population density and abundant vegetation.

“[I say in my CiF piece] ‘making a genetically engineered elephant that can handle the cold – this just isn’t as emotionally satisfying as … taking an actual mammoth cell nucleus’.  But, neither route is the “real thing”.  The frozen nuclei have been lethally irradiated for 10,000 years — broken to tiny pieces, while the synthetic DNA is unbroken and hence more like “real” Mammoth DNA.  If we are face-to-face with an animal containing such DNA and that looks like Mammoth and thrives at -50 degrees, I’d be surprised if we would be emotionally unmoved.”




**George Church is interviewed quite extensively in Woolly Mammoth: the Autopsy, so well worth watching to hear what he has to say on the matter: 8pm, 23rd November on Channel 4**



One comment

  1. Jasper Wallace · November 21, 2014

    I read that one of the objections on ethical grounds is that the cloned mammoth, being the only one of its kind, would be ‘lonely’. However, I’m guessing that the young mammoth would not know it is a mammoth – it would identify with the Asian elephants around it. The Asian elephants might regard it as one of their own, unless it is born already extremely hairy.
    Overall, though, I agree that the wastage rate associated with cloning makes it a course of action best avoided. And if we want to save a species we should concentrate on habitat destruction and how to mitigate it.


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