Why We Can’t Clone Wooly Mammoths in 2 Years

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Prehistoric Wooly Mammoths About to Be Resurrected, Claim Harvard Scientists!” Holy crap! Wooly mammoths! Harvard! No way is this fake news, right?

Ah, god damn it.

Geneticist George Church is telling news outlets that he’s just two years away from reintroducing the extinct wooly mammoth back to Earth. Gosh, this sounds so familiar but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Could it be because this isn’t the first time we’ve heard this claim?

If you’ll recall, waaaaay back in 2011 a scientist at Kyoto University announced that HE was going to bring back the wooly mammoth within five years. Let’s see, quick back-of-the-envelope math here, carry the one…oh my, five years ago was 2016! So it must have already happened, and Church didn’t even realize! Boy is his face going to be red.

The Kyoto researcher is Dr. Akira Iritani, and some quick Googling led me to the horrific discovery that he has failed to produce a wooly mammoth within five years as promised. He was going to use a technique in which a mouse was cloned from 16-year old frozen tissue, and he was weirdly confident that that trick would work on tissue that’s been frozen for 4,000 years and no longer has a living female member of the species to carry an embryo to term, which would then require an elephant to be the surrogate.

That apparently isn’t working, so Church is attempting to get a mammoth by going the other way — not by starting with mammoth genetic material and putting it in an elephant, but by taking elephant genetic material and tweaking it to look like mammoth genetic material. He’s way more confident than Iritani, because he thinks he’s going to have a little baby mammoth in two years. As I stated many years ago when Iritani first hit the news, I simply cannot wait for my utopian future full of baby mammoths wearing jetpacks.

Over on Medium, John Hawks does a great job of explaining several of the ways in which we will not enjoy that future in two years. He points out that Church has edited 45 elephant genes to be more wooly mammothy, which means Church only has another 4,000 to go. Yikes.

Hawks also answered my main question with Church’s two-year plan — if you want an elephant to give birth to a baby mammoth in two years, you’d better be getting that elephant pregnant right the fuck now, because elephants have a 22-month gestational period. Plus you’d better be getting tons of elephants pregnant, like a serious elephant orgy, because the cloning failure rate is ridiculously high and you’re going to have to sort through a lot of half-formed mutant babies before you find your mammoth.

Hawks points out that that’s because Church doesn’t actually plan to get the mammoth to term — he only wants to make an embryo, which will happen faster but won’t actually show all the wooly mammoth traits that he’s editing the genes to produce, so we won’t actually know how much of a success it is.

There are other problems with the story, so check out Hawks’ full breakdown. Apologies to everyone who, like me, was looking forward to a more mammothy 2019, but we’ll probably have more success knitting fuzzy sweaters for elephants.

To end on a positive note, I got curious and wanted to see if I could find photos of elephants wearing sweaters. Delightfully, I found an elephant rescue in India that gets volunteers to knit sweaters for their weakened elephants to be more comfortable in the cold winter. It’s pretty much the greatest thing ever. Sometimes humans are okay.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon mstdn.social/@rebeccawatson Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky @rebeccawatson.bsky.social

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  1. A smilodon with the personality of a good Siamese (very attached to one person) would be awesome, and a definite deterrent to potential bad guys. The litter box might present a challenge, and having it climb into my lap would be interesting.

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