Is extinction forever? Efforts are under way to use gene editing and other tools of biotechnology to “recreate” extinct species such as the woolly mammoth. 

The Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival team headed by George Church hopes to one day release healthy heards of mammoths into the tunfra of Eurasia and North America.

But they’re not the only one who’s involved in serious attempts to clone the extinct creature. South Korea’s Sooam Biotech are also attempting to resurrect the extinct beast. They are using different approaches to the de-extinction issue, and only one can be first. 

De-extinction is the science of bringing extinct animals back from the dead through the process of reproductive cloning. 

The Church Lab believe that the reintroduction of the mammoth could help convert the tundra back into the mammoth steppe, or grasslands, it once was. This could eventually help slow down climate change, as research suggests. 

The last population of woolly mammoths, who were isolated on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean while their mainland brethren declined, completely died out around four millennia ago. What makes the mammoth so interesting, however, is that unlike many other long-extinct species, we have access to a considerable amount of intact genetic material. This is primarily due to mammoth remains having been exceptionally well preserved in oil pits or frozen conditions, and it means that, at a very basic level, we have the necessary resources to restore the species.

Earlier this year, George Church stated that he believed we could have mammoth-elephant hybrids in as little as two years. Instead of trying to breed pure mammoths, the team have elected to start by adding ‘mammoth characteristics’ to the genome of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), a distant relative of the woolly mammoth. These characteristics include genes for the thick fur that gave woolly mammoths their name and blood adapted to extremely cold weather, amongst others.

“We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits,” Church told New Scientist in February. “The list of edits affects things that contribute to the success of elephants in cold environments. We already know about ones to do with small ears, subcutaneous fat, hair and blood.”

On the other side of the world, Sooam Biotech has a different approach. They are probably most known for their controversial prowess in cloning animals, but back in 2016 Sooam Biotech announced an agreement to work with China National Genbank and North-Eastern Federal University in Russia on resurrecting the mammoths. Working with scientists in Russia could give them a head start, because the explorers of the icy tundra in Siberia often find frozen mammoth carcasses in the melting permafrost. And this is where Sooam Biotech are hoping to find and isolate woolly mammoth DNA. 

Several essayists ask whether de-extinction goes too far in advancing human activity in the natural world. Christopher Preston, an ethicist at the University of Montana, argues that de-extinction is different from many other kinds of human activities because it tries to alter the deep structure of nature. Gregory Kaebnick asks whether de-extinction challenges the “gardening ethic” that some environmentalists have recently called for. He argues that the technologies show the need to think more carefully about what “good gardening” really means for a conservationist. In the version of gardening he defends, we should “think of nature as a place, a community–a threatened homeland,” Kaebnick advises. “We live in it and dominate it, but we depend on it and cherish it. We should safeguard it.”

Regardless of which group of scientists that manages to recreate the woolly mammoth first, it will be historic.