Interview: Beth Shapiro, Author Of 'How To Clone A Mammoth' De-extinction technology could soon bring back lost species — or preserve endangered ones. In her new book, evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro explores the scientific and ethical challenges.

If Science Could 'Clone A Mammoth,' Could It Save An Elephant?

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It's been more than 20 years since "Jurassic Park" hit the screens, and scientists have been cloning animals almost as long. So where are those baby velociraptor already? Come on, science.

Well, in Russia, there's a park all ready to go for woolly mammoths, and scientists there say it's just a matter of time before they can bring back actual mammoths to enjoy it. Evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro takes us through the world of de-extinction in her new book, "How To Clone A Mammoth." But first, why to clone a mammoth? Shapiro says for her, it's all about restoring ecosystems.

BETH SHAPIRO: Mammoths probably played a pretty important role in their ecosystem as the largest herbivore that was around. We know from work that's being done in Siberia right now that restoring herbivores to an ecosystem really does a lot to generate and regenerate the kind of grassland community that they need to survive.

RATH: You go into some detail about how this is easier said than done - cloning an extinct animal. You actually cracked open some amber with ancient insects inside, looking for DNA just like they did in "Jurassic Park." What did you find?

SHAPIRO: Nothing.

RATH: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: The same thing that anybody who's tried this has found.

RATH: So with our animal you're using as an example - for a mammoth, what have been the ways they've been able to successfully find mammoth DNA?

SHAPIRO: DNA from Mammoths is preserved in bone and skin, teeth, hair. And the mummies that have been melting out of the Siberian permafrost, DNA is not particularly well-preserved in these things. If I were to extract DNA from something that was alive, I could get really long fragments. But when I - we extract DNA from bones, that DNA is actually chopped up into tiny, little fragments, and they're also really broken and damaged. And this is the reason that we cannot clone mammoths. Cloning is actually a very specific scientific process. That process requires a living cell.

RATH: So there are efforts that you write about that are underway already to bring the mammoth back there in Russia and in South Korea. Are they just pursuing a lost cause?

SHAPIRO: I think so.


SHAPIRO: Anyone who is determined to go out there and find a living mammoth cell is going to be sorely disappointed. There are other ways that we can do this, though, not by cloning a mammoth, but by genetically modifying the genome sequence of an elephant cell in a dish in a lab using new genome-editing technology and swapping out bits of elephant sequence for the mammoth version of sequences that we think are important in making a mammoth look and act more like a mammoth than like an elephant. And this technology is possible today.

RATH: So what you're advocating here - and you do advocate for this, right? This is something you would like to see - the elephant with mammoth DNA worked into it.

SHAPIRO: This is a hard question.

RATH: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Until we've figured out how to meet both the physical and psychological needs of elephants in captivity, they shouldn't be in captivity at all, much less being used to make mammoths. But if we were to put all of that aside, I don't want to see mammoths brought back. It's never going to be possible to create a species that is a hundred percent identical. But what if we could use this technology not to bring back mammoths but to save elephants? What if we could use this technology to make elephants slightly better adapted to living in cooler climates, the type of place that mammoths used to live? We could then create more space for them.

RATH: But then this gets kind of philosophical, 'cause are you really preserving elephants, or are you replacing them with mutant elephants?

SHAPIRO: Mammoths and elephants have approximately 99 percent identical genomes. And if we're talking about changing a few genes here and there to make them better adapted to living in the cold, I think we're talking about preserving elephants.

RATH: You know, I have to say - maybe this is based more on science fiction than on science, but I'm a little bit uneasy at the idea of releasing genetically-engineered mammoth elephants even more than the idea of releasing good old-fashioned mammoths.

SHAPIRO: Really?

RATH: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: That's kind of surprising. We don't know what's going to happen when we start messing around with - reprogram the genetic code by creating Chihuahuas or Great Danes, and we don't seem to fear that. There's something more natural than about going in and very specifically targeting a gene that we have some idea of what it does.

RATH: But would you say, though - I mean, with humans struggling right now to keep existing elephants from going extinct, is it worth it to put all this effort into mammoths as opposed to protecting the elephants that we have?

SHAPIRO: I think that the key use of this technology, the same technology that we're talking about, is to protect species and populations that are alive today. Take, for example, black-footed ferrets that are living across the plains of North America. Black-footed ferrets nearly went extinct a couple decades ago because of extermination programs, and today, black-footed ferrets are threatened by a disease.

What if we could use the same technology that we're talking about to go back in time and sequence DNA from black-footed ferrets that are in museum collections somewhere that are decades or centuries or even thousands of years old and find genetic diversity in those that we could then inject into the populations today that have no genetic diversity? Maybe we could use this technology to give those populations a little bit of a genetic booster shot and maybe a fighting chance against the diseases that are killing them.

We're facing a crisis - a conservation-by-diversity crisis. This technology might be a very powerful new weapon in our arsenal against what's going on today. I don't think we should dismiss it out of fear.

RATH: Beth Shapiro is an evolutionary biologist at UC, Santa Cruz and the author of the new book "How To Clone A Mammoth." Beth, thank you very much.

SHAPIRO: Thank you for having me.

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