It’s all hype: we’re a long way from reconstructing a mammoth

I had to comment on all the recent news about resurrecting mammoths, ala Jurassic Park. Nah, it’s not happening in the foreseeable future.


  1. says

    Why should the first species be a mammoth? Maybe we should start by bringing back the Passenger Pidgeon. Hasn’t been extinct nearly as long. Has closer modern relatives. Pigeons are an absolutely ubiquitous. So much so they are a pest most places.

  2. says

    And frogs. As far as I know they don’t teach their offspring anything, so the extinction of their culture wouldn’t complicate things. Plus external development and most being very recently extinct, they’re perfect for resurrection.

  3. wzrd1 says

    Given a choice of things to construct my magical panspermia darts of, metals are totally off – the sample organism would arrive quite well done in by bremmstralung radiation. I’d probably go with polyethylene with a ferromagnetic layer, topped with more polyethylene and magnetically propelled into oblivion.
    If it impacts a planet, it’ll likely burn up in the atmosphere or vaporize on landing in a near or full vacuum environment. Sounds like a hell of a lot of work to inevitably and laughably fail at.
    Rather a lot like bringing back a mammoth, given the degree of DNA degradation over tens of thousands of years.
    Want to return animals from extinction? Try bringing back the dodo and marsupial wolf.
    But, that’ll never happen, as such things wouldn’t sound as good at the funding drives for the vanity science scam project.

  4. birgerjohansson says

    The thylacine?
    Stellers Sea Cow made extinct by seal hunters. Lots of birds.
    För details I recommend the beautifully illustrated book “A Gap In Nature”.
    Also, Gregory Benford suggested long ago we should freeze the whole bodies of endangered animals- including their gut organisms- since that preserves more information.

  5. John Morales says

    PS “The average gestation period of an elephant is about 640 to 660 days, or roughly 95 weeks. By comparison, a human pregnancy lasts an average of 280 days, or 40 weeks.”

  6. Walter Solomon says

    How about the Rocky Mountain locust? America deserves a plague of locusts if any country does.

    Plus we’d get to know what Laura Ingalls Wilder felt like when she experienced a swarm of them in the 19th Century.

  7. Walter Solomon says

    Another plus is that we could use the locusts as a food source when livestock becomes unsustainable.

  8. microraptor says

    Ah, I saw the puff piece yesterday and was hoping to see you give it the evisceration it deserved.

  9. John Morales says

    garydargan, I see you get your (ahem) science news from Facebook, of all places.

    Look, first of all, tardigrades are multicellular organisms adapted to live on an Earth biosphere. They need to eat, they need to shit, they need a suitable environment to do their thing. So, no — no “seeding of life”.

    Also, PZ says the proposal was to shoot DNA into space — you know, a chemical.
    Doesn’t do anything except degrade, outside the environment of a cell.

  10. outis says

    Nah, nah, let me vote for the Sicilian dwarf elephant (Elephas Falconeri if memory serves). Adult 120cm high, and the complete skellington of a juvenile which was found looms at 33cm at the shoulder! Cutest things ever, I can imagine them taking the world by storm as wonderful pets & companions.
    And about panspermia, here is a classic:

    everything in it looks plausible, as I am sure you will agree.

  11. drsteve says

    I first remember Church from giving one of the least-impressive academic talks I’ve ever seen while I was in grad school — just a few minutes hype for each of a series of whatever cool ideas were on his mind at the time, but never going into the slightest bit of detail about practical implementation (even as pilot experiments in the lab) before jumping to the next.

    Later, I worked briefly at one of the startups he was behind, Cambrian Genomics — you might think it was founded to resurrect the trilobite, and the CEO actually theatrically played the theme for Jurassic Park at one point during my first tour of their space — but it was based around automated large-scale DNA synthesis for general applications. I wasn’t working with them long, and unfortunately, the CEO was visibly troubled and later came to a bad end. Although Church wasn’t involved in the day-to-day of Cambrian, he must have been on the board, and I’d say that letting the company be run by a technical wunderkind who was otherwise tragically unsuited to the role is another example of his nerd tunnel vision and not-so-great judgment about people.

  12. says

    #21: Yeah, that sounds familiar, I’ve seen him do the same thing.

    This mammoth project is also the same, except he managed to get $15 million off of one of his brain farts.

  13. raven says


    The company’s founder, redacted name, committed suicide at the age of 31 on May 24, 2015.[8]

    The company encountered difficulties getting plants to emit significant amounts of light, and announced via email in December 2017 that it had exhausted other money-earning bioluminescence ideas and was ceasing operations.

    I only vaguely recall Cambrian Genomics and had to look them up to find out what happened to them. George Church was on their Scientific Advisory Board.

    I have the same observation of Church that others have mentioned. Grandiose projects with few details that never seem to get too far off the ground and then just sort of fade out.

  14. raven says

    Typically, transgenic mice are generated by microinjecting the transgenic construct into a fertilized egg (oocyte or zygote). … Another method to generate transgenic mice is to transfect a transgenic construct into mouse embryonic stem (ES) cells and then inject these cells into mouse blastocysts.

    Overview: Engineering transgenic constructs and mice – NCBI

    Yeah, I saw the headline and immediately said, not going to happen with $15 million.

    You would start with the elephant genome and modifiy it with key genes to a Mammoth. The embryonic stem cell method likely would be used.
    You need to know or find out the key differences between mammoths and living elephants.
    You need elephant embryonic stem cells.
    You need elephant early state blastocysts, that is early stage elephant fertilized eggs. (Good luck getting those out of an elephant.)
    You need female elephants to host the blastocysts + transgenic stem cells.
    Then wait two years for the gestation time.

    None of this in theory is impossible but it is a huge amount of work and most likely would take huge amounts of money and time. Looking at decades at the least.

    As has been pointed out many times already, there are far easier and better organisms that we could try to resurrect.

  15. raven says

    Strangely enough, we have actually resurrected some extinct organisms. So far, they are just viruses.
    .1. The human genome is 8% dead retroviruses.
    Scientists have patched up the mutations and revived one of them, they call it Phoenix and it was last active 5 million years ago.
    .2. We have also resurrected the 1918 flu pandemic virus, by sequencing viral archival sequences and synthesizing it.

    Phoenix Rising: Scientists Resuscitate A 5 Million-year-old Retrovirus
    October 31, 2006 Source: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

    A team of scientists has reconstructed the DNA sequence of a 5-million-year-old retrovirus and shown that it is able to produce infectious particles. The retrovirus–named Phoenix–is the ancestor of a large family of mobile DNA elements, some of which may play a role in cancer. The study, which is the first to generate an infectious retrovirus from a mobile element in the human genome, is considered a breakthrough for the field of retrovirus research. The findings are reported in Genome Research.

    “Phoenix became frozen in time after it integrated into the human genome about 5 million years ago,” explains Dr. Thierry Heidmann, lead investigator on the project. “In our study, we’ve recovered this ancestral state and shown that it has the potential for infectivity.”

  16. Jazzlet says

    I think it would be cruel, and GAS says mammoths had a culture as herd animals, bringing them back (assuming it could be done in the first place) with out that culture is really iffy, and we have no idea how to bring back their cuture.

  17. birgerjohansson says

    Re. Panspermia- Svante Arrhenius who was the first to give the subject a reasonably scientific consideration lived before radiation biology was a mature science, and obviously long before we knew anything about radiation in space.
    But he was a clever fellow, being the first to try working out what a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would result in.
    Also, the first to get a Nobel prize.
    As we are partly neanderthals and denisovans ourselves, it would not be so questionable to resurrect them.

  18. unclefrogy says

    just how is resurrecting any creature let alone a wholly mammoth going to do anything to the CO2 levels in the atmosphere? I thought that the riser of CO2 along with some other gasses was the primary driver of climate change?

  19. KG says

    I have the same observation of Church that others have mentioned. Grandiose projects with few details that never seem to get too far off the ground and then just sort of fade out.

    Impressive beard, though!

  20. unclefrogy says

    If the idea was to spread earth biology all over the place it might be better to chose a few of the hardiest weed plant seeds along with cyanobacteria and slime mold as the source of the DNA all sealed in smallish radiation resistant capsules.
    I am beginning to get the impression that the thing that most of these people share in common is an unrealistic understanding of deep time or maybe a complete lack of any appreceation of real time at all.

  21. KG says

    let alone a wholly[sic] mammoth – unclefrogy@30

    It wouldn’t be a wholly mammoth (even if it were feasible) because they’d need to stick the nuclear genome in an Asian elephant’s egg, so the mitochondria, and all the intracellular structures, would be non-mammoth!

  22. felixmagister says

    Even if you were to get Mammoth mitochondria, etc., a mammoth embryo developing in an elephant uterus would be exposed to somewhat different hormone patterns than it would have experienced in an actual mammoth uterus, and so would develop somewhat differently than a historical mammoth. It’s funny, given that so many people conceive of DNA as “code”, that so few people stop to consider the “operating system” where the “code” is running.

  23. birgerjohansson says

    FYI The preacher Daniel Haqiqatjou has been defending slavery and child marriage in a Youtube debate with Harris Sultan.
    Now back to the more wholesome discussion about using DNA to bring back species.

  24. birgerjohansson says

    OT again.
    The Scathing Atheist just mentioned a church treasurer has been arrested for emvezzling $150,000 ….
    for his porn habit.

  25. Rich Woods says

    @unclefrogy #32:

    If the idea was to spread earth biology all over the place it might be better to chose a few of the hardiest weed plant seeds along with cyanobacteria and slime mold as the source of the DNA all sealed in smallish radiation resistant capsules.

    ‘Smallish’ could be a challenge.

    Outside the heliosphere, your DNA package is going to need quite a bit of protection to last the 70,000 years it might take to get to Alpha Centauri. A couple of metres of ice sandwiched between an inner shell of iron and an outer shell of a few centimetres of aluminium, plus an ablative layer something like the compressed polyethylene boards they use for military helicopter armour might do the trick (easily a metre or two of that).

    The other main problem would be braking in your target system, in the hope of planetary capture; you’re probably not going to be able to design an engine that would work after all that time. Even if that worked, or the craft just got lucky with the ballistics, the core package would have to survive atmospheric entry without getting so hot that the lifeforms were destroyed.

    If you assume a metre-diameter package you’d be looking at sending an object with an overall mass of about 250 tonnes between solar systems, and to stand any hope of success you’d have to launch many, many thousands of them. For comparison, the two Voyager probes launched in the 1970s and which have only just now left our solar system each weighed 825kg.

    It almost seems easier to wait for the next dinosaur killer, which, while it would probably wipe out human civilisation and even send humanity into extinction, would at least stand a chance of chucking a load of Earth rocks into space.