The Woolly Mammoth’s return could thaw relations with Russia

SEP 04, 2021

A man touches a giant bronze sculpture of a mammoth in the Siberian city of Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, on March 7, 2011. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/GETTYIMAGES

An ambitious scientific project is a rare chance for cooperation.

Even under a new U.S. administration, U.S.-Russian relations are chilly at best. U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin came away from their eagerly anticipated June summit having agreed on little more than nuclear war should never be fought. As diplomatic negotiations go, agreeing that nuclear Armageddon should be avoided is a modest accomplishment.

Since then, there has not been much room for optimism; in August, Russia moved forward with plans to ban foreign nationals from staffing the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Russia, cutting mission personnel from upward of 2,200 people to around 120 people. Meanwhile, Russian actors appear undeterred in their efforts to wage damaging hacking campaigns against a broad range of U.S. targets, despite Biden’s demands in June that Putin rein in these ransomware attacks.

But amid many otherwise dim diplomatic prospects, one hope for warmer ties and improved strategic stability may come from a most unexpected source: the woolly mammoth.

Whimsical though it may sound, serious efforts are under way in Harvard Medical School’s labs by revered geneticist George Church to resurrect the mammoth from extinction. Working in collaboration with Russian scientists in northeastern Siberia and a team of conservationists in California, Church hopes to release a herd of creatures that are effectively indistinguishable from Ice Age woolly mammoths within the next two decades.

The woolly mammoth revival project creates unique opportunities for bilateral cooperation in the arenas of climate change and Arctic policy.

The woolly mammoth revival project creates unique opportunities for bilateral cooperation in the arenas of climate change and Arctic policy. These issues transcend borders and have serious, growing impacts on the internal affairs of both Russia and the United States. And dealing with them will require interstate cooperation—regardless of which other political squabbles may color relations between Moscow and Washington. If successful, the woolly mammoth revival project could change the tenor of the Arctic itself—turning it into a venue for cooperation rather than all-out competition.

Although the Cold War is often framed in terms of technological competition between Moscow and Washington, science often offered fertile ground for cooperation between the two adversaries. This was true even during the lowest of bilateral lows. Particularly fruitful avenues of cooperation have included joint U.S.-Soviet efforts on human space flight as well as bilateral efforts on vaccine diplomacy and joint efforts during Operation Breakthrough to rescue a group of gray whales trapped by sea ice off the Alaskan coast. Like climate change, these are transborder issues. For that reason, they stand to benefit from coordinated international solutions.

Enter the woolly mammoth. The primary goal of Church’s project is to turn back the hands of time on the Arctic tundra and restore the grasslands of the Pleistocene era. Within the next 20 years, he plans to release these lab-bred mammoths into Pleistocene Park, a sprawling nature reserve in northeastern Siberia run by Sergey and Nikita Zimov, a respected father-son research team. The Zimovs have already successfully rewilded several species that formerly inhabited these northern grasslands, such as the musk ox and plains bison.

As the Pleistocene epoch drew to a close, woolly mammoths and other large grazing animals that once populated the northern steppe disappeared. Grasses and herbs that previously sustained the herds of the mammoth steppe gave way to less productive types of flora, such as slow-growing mosses, shrubs, and larch trees. Lumbering across the landscape, large herbivores previously played a key role in compacting and dispersing layers of snow. In the absence of these species, the frigid temperatures of northern winters are less effective in penetrating the soil than they once were. This, paired with warmer summer temperatures, threaten to speed up the melting of the region’s permafrost, which, in turn, will accelerate the release of methane. The degradation of the Arctic permafrost threatens to release some 1,400 gigatons of methane into the stratosphere, which would be catastrophic from a climate change perspective given methane’s potent warming qualities. “That would be an extremely inconvenient truth because it dwarfs the 10 gigatons per year that all humans use and abuse combined,” Church said.

Research conducted by Church, the Zimovs, and others suggests the reintroduction of grazing species, even many millennia after they vanished from these parts, can play a key role in restoring historic grasslands. The reintroduction of grasslands to these regions is expected to foster greater biodiversity, allowing large herbivores to flourish. In turn, large grazing animals will compact the soil, enabling the permafrost to freeze more deeply during winter months. Woolly mammoths add particular value in this regard. According to Church’s team, they were considered to be engineers of the grasslands in their day, preventing the growth of trees that would break up the grasslands and thereby compromise their natural ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. In addition, the mammoths dispersed massive quantities of nutrients across vast swaths of land by way of their fecal matter.

Asked why he chose the woolly mammoth as the mascot of his de-extinction project, Church said the creature offered considerable promise in terms of mitigating climate change risks given the impact of methane on warming while also being public relations-friendly enough to be a viable choice. “They are large and charismatic and could win a popularity contest, but they’re also vegetarian. We didn’t want to bring back the T-Rex,” he explained.

In recent years, other teams of researchers, including most prominently a group in South Korea, generated buzz about the prospect of cloning the mammoth. At present, however, this option does not appear to be viable because it would require the recovery of living cells. This is an obvious problem, as mammoths went extinct thousands of years ago.

Church’s team has not confronted this obstacle. He is working with CRISPR-Cas 9, a gene-editing technology that enables scientists to alter a creature’s genetic materials by cutting targeted strands of DNA and either adding or deleting genetic materials to change the overall DNA sequence. By enabling scientists to physically alter the structure of a creature’s genome, this technology offers hope for everything from disease prevention to—as in the case of Church’s project—altering the characteristics of living species.

Church’s team is years into the process of splicing together the DNA of woolly mammoths with that of Asian elephants, the mammoth’s closest living relative. The goal is to create a novel breed of hybrid mammoth-elephants that are cold-resistant, virus-resistant, and poacher-resistant. To achieve the latter, Church has genetically modified their tusks to be short and thus unprofitable for hunters. After years of pioneering work on the project, he estimates his team is approximately 40 genetic adjustments away from successfully engineering a cell that can be used to create the embryo of the first new woolly mammoth.

Once the genetic engineering portion of this project is complete, a key obstacle to reintroducing the mammoth to the wild will be ensuring efficient population growth. To spawn new mammoths—initially without hampering Asian elephant conservation efforts and then ensuring the efficient proliferation of the resurrected species—Church plans to rely on in vitro birth technology. This is not to be mistaken with in vitro fertilization, where an embryo is created in a lab setting. In in vitro birth, an artificial womb is used to actually develop the fetus from embryo to baby.

Given how long it will take to nail down all of these emerging technologies, Church estimates mammoths will be hard at work restoring the grasslands in some 16 years. At that point, the reproductive efforts of this initial population will continue to be supplemented by in vitro development efforts in the lab.

The idea that we’re just 16 years away from seeing woolly mammoths roam their ancestral lands will sound farfetched to many. But Church is known for making the impossible happen.

To be sure, the idea that we’re just 16 years away from seeing woolly mammoths roam their ancestral lands will sound farfetched to many. But Church is known for making the impossible happen. As science journalist Torill Kornfeldt describes in her book The Re-Origin of Species: A Second Chance for Extinct Animals, “People would call [Church] an incurable, almost crazy, optimist, if it weren’t for the fact that all the scientific progress he predicted has actually come true. And in many cases, it’s actually happened in his own lab.” In addition to his de-extinction efforts, Church is known for his pioneering work in genome sequencing and synthetic biology.

And between the genetic work his team has already carried out and the successful rewilding efforts that already took place in Pleistocene Park, Church is confident this project will be a success.

Scientific research on genetic engineering has bounded ahead in recent years. But it’s been accompanied by a lack of clear policy guidance. At present, international laws and standards governing the de-extinction on animal species are scant. The authors of a 2017 study on de-extinction policy explain that “it will be crucial to clarify how de-extinct species will be classified, in particular, in relation to their potential conservation status under national and international law. … As the de-extinction debate is relatively recent, [de-extinct animal species] are currently not explicitly considered in legislation.”

But it is precisely within these legal gray areas that Washington and Moscow have successfully managed to cooperate, even during previous diplomatic nadirs. In particular, the two countries have a history of working together on matters of compelling mutual interest with respect to then-ungoverned territories. This is evidenced by Antarctic and space demilitarization treaties, both of which were enacted during the Cold War.

The Arctic, lacking a central governing international treaty or body, is riddled with governance gaps, including—according to a recent RAND Corporation report—“limited dialogue and transparency on military issues, limited capability to execute governance agreements, and tension between the growing need for inclusivity and Arctic states’ interests.”

But there is room for optimism. As Church noted: “One of the nice things about science, as long as it’s not required for national defense, it tends to be very sharing and cooperative—it sometimes cuts through points where diplomacy is not cutting through. Very often you can have a scientific conference, even if the nation states are at each other’s throats.”

Buoyed by such sentiments, Church, the Zimovs, and their respective teams are forging ahead despite the lack of clear governing policy. The latter would be easy enough to develop. This is a rare, low-stakes opportunity for diplomats to forge an agreement that is beneficial to all, and thus, both sides of the widening U.S.-Russia divide can sign off on it with minimal political costs. Furthermore, it’s a project that captivates the imagination and is ripe with opportunities for cultural diplomacy on both sides.

Evidence of the two governments’ views on this specific revival project are scant, which could owe to the fact it would be nearly impossible to predict at this point precisely when, where, and how the mammoths will be released into the wild. The de-extinction process could hypothetically be governed by a patchwork of environmental, species protection patents and other laws. For example, in the United States, the release of genetically engineered organisms into the wild would trigger an environmental impact analysis under federal law and likely additional scrutiny under state law, and it may also have patent implications. This could all be further complicated by the process through which the mammoth de-extinction project transitions from private labs to the public sphere. Given the scores of variables at play, policymakers could be forgiven for taking a wait-and-see approach.

But international governance on this matter is a goal it would behoove all to work toward; Russia’s prolific track record of unexpectedly weaponizing certain finicky species—including dolphins and cockroaches—injects a compelling motive for cooperation on the U.S. side. The last thing the United States wants is woolly mammoths trained for combat operations.

Ultimately, climate change is coming for us, and none of the world’s great powers can afford to fight this battle alone. Desperate diplomatic times call for imaginative measures. The United States and Russia have an established history of stubbornness, and neither side has much to win from caving on political squabbles at this point. But the two countries also have a rich history of scientific cooperation through even the bleakest foreign-policy eras. The woolly mammoth revival project may harken back to ancient history, but it offers a concrete path toward joint action on climate change—an issue that will only grow more present with time. And it just may earn some smiles in the process.