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From elephants to elephoths

At Hay Festival, Beth Shapiro explains how to clone a mammoth

Maggie Fergusson | May 23rd 2015

The crowds at the Hay Festival are teeming. From the queues outside the Tata Tent, you’d think the historian Antony Beevor was some middle-ranking rock star. Last year, 250,000 tickets were sold; this time the organisers are confident it’ll be many more. And, as the revolving slideshow on screens around the site reminds us, Hay is just the hub: satellite festivals and activities reach out into five continents. It’s hard not to wonder whether Peter Florence, the founder and director, is aiming in some not too distant future to rule the world.

But will that future world be roamed by creatures from the deep past? That was the question Beth Shapiro (above) set out to answer this morning in a talk entitled, like her recent book, “How to Clone a Mammoth”. Shapiro, 39, is an evolutionary molecular biologist from California, and for someone who spends much of her working life with bones that are over 700,000 years old, she’s extraordinarily alive. Her talk, nearly an hour long, was delivered without notes, and with such zest that it made me long to go back to school and learn some proper science.

So, can you or can’t you? The simple answer (and one which perhaps makes Shapiro’s title a bit of a cheat) is a clear no. To clone a creature—like Dolly the sheep was cloned—you need to be able to extract DNA from cells in almost perfect condition. No mammoth bones yet found—or likely to emerge—are in anything like good enough nick.

But if we’ll never be able to clone a mammoth, there seems some possibility that we might one day be able to “engineer” one. Scientists in Stockholm believe they are close to piecing together the genome sequence of mammoths. Which opens the possibility of creating “short lengths of synthetic mammoth DNA” which might be “cut and pasted” into the genome of the mammoth’s closest genetic relative, the Asian elephant, to create a creature (the elephoth?) sharing the characteristics of both. “We can’t do it yet,” Shaprio admitted. “But at some point I’ve little doubt that we will be able to.”

But, if we can, should we? Rather than bringing back species that have been extinct for hundreds of centuries, should scientists not be concentrating their efforts on ensuring that endangered species don’t become extinct? In a fascinating twist, Shapiro suggested that the two things were linked. Asian elephants, for example, are now threatened with extinction. By building into their DNA some of the qualities of the mammoth—notably the ability to survive in very low temperatures—we might actually help to ensure their survival, by enabling them to live in places where they’d currently wither: Siberia, Alaska, Greenland.

It was a proposition that thrilled some of the audience, and terrified the rest—and Shapiro admitted that she receives a regular stream of hate mail. Aren’t there grave risks, one man asked, “in all this stuff”? There are, Shaprio agreed. Absolutely. “There are risks if we do; and there are risks if we don’t.” 

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