Sea levels are constantly rising. Oceans are getting warmer. The ice caps in the polar regions are melting. Intense droughts are threatening crops. Animals are becoming endangered or extinct. All of this shows that our planet is at a risk from climate change, the biggest environmental concern at present. And it has taken place because we have disturbed the balance of earth by living beyond our means. We’ve burnt huge amounts of fossil fuels and cut down tons of forests.
One of the major impacts of climate change is species endangerment or extinction. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a 1.5°C average rise may put 20-30% of species at risk of extinction. In order to help endangered animals survive in changing climatic conditions, biologists suggest that genes might be introduced even from other species. In other words, gene modification of animals may be the only way to save some of the most endangered species from becoming extinct.
This could be done in several ways. Animals from a threatened population could be hybridized with individuals from the same species that adapted better in a new environment. The most extreme idea proposed by biologist Michael Thomas is to take genes from a well-adapted species and insert them into the genomes of endangered animals from an altogether different species.
At present, scientists are investigating if the genes of the already extinct woolly mammoths that lived some 4,000 years ago could be inserted into the endangered Asian elephants (an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 existing on the planet today). Doing so would give the endangered elephants a greater chance of survival, according to researchers.
The elephants that exist today are incapable of tolerating the cold climate. The idea is to use gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR to insert the genes from ancient mammoths into Asian elephant cells and create embryos that may grow up to be elephant-mammoth hybrids capable of surviving the cold temperatures. George Church, an MIT and Harvard geneticist who let the team for the study said, “It could just be 44 genes that might be sufficient to make them adapted again to the cold.” He said that carrying out this method successfully would rapidly increase the resistance power of Asian elephants to colder temperatures.
The process could also help mitigate the effects of climate change because there’s a huge amount of carbon trapped in the permafrost located in the northern regions of the earth. And the rising temperatures could melt the permafrost, leading to the rapid release of carbon into the atmosphere. According to scientists, if they reintroduced the hybrids to the northern regions of the planet, they would help in keeping the temperatures warmer during the winters. This practice would result in the ecosystem of that region becoming climate-friendly.
Due to ethical concerns, scientists would need to create the elephant-mammoth hybrid in the lab instead of implanting embryos in live elephants. The whole process would be long and gradual. Initially, scientists would develop hybrid cells, then specialized tissues, and, if successful, they’d finally attempt to grow a modified elephant in an artificial womb.
Dr. Douglas McCauley, an ecology, evolution and marine biology professor at the University of California said, “We are closer now than ever before to being able to raise species from the dead. But it is important to understand what are and are not able to do with de-extinction technology”. He also said that scientists could begin the process of resurrecting the huge species as early as 2018.