Laura Anderson and Selina Badiani
Although mammoths have been extinct for approximately 4000 years, scientists at Harvard University, led by Professor George Church, have successfully modified the DNA of Asian elephants by inserting mammoth genes, obtained from mammoths preserved in permafrost, into the DNA of Asian elephants. The inserted genes relate to “mammoth-specific” features such as hairiness and subcutaneous fat, and were inserted using a revolutionary gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9.
The scientists’ ultimate goal is to create a living creature with mammoth-like characteristics and eventually restore the woolly mammoth into the wild. It is hoped that the reintroduction of mammoth-like species into northern climates will slow climate change, and the project may also help in conservation efforts for the endangered Asian elephant, for example by modifying the elephant genome to make their tusks worthless to the ivory trade.
Up to 25 candidates of extinct animal have now been proposed as candidates for de-extinction, and Professor Church has previously commented that he believes he will see the revival of the Neanderthal in his lifetime. However, there have been many objections raised to de-extinction.
Firstly, from an animal welfare point of view, it is likely that animals will end up suffering, for example in the case of the extinct Pyrenean ibex foetus that was cloned from cryopreserved tissue, which died shortly after birth due to lung abnormalities. Additionally, it is incredibly difficult to predict what effect a newly-resurrected species would have on the environment and the natural ecosystem. Finally, it has been argued that the focus should be on conservation of existing endangered species, such as the Asian elephant, rather than relying on new technology which is expensive and ultimately may not work.
There are also many questions of law to be answered. For example, how would de-extinction be regulated? In the EU, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are regulated by a series of regulations and directives which restrict, for example, the release of GMOs into the environment. GMOs are defined as “an organism, with the exception of human beings, in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination”. So far, the legislation has mainly been applied to crop species and in July of this year the ECJ ruled that crops obtained by gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9 were GMOs. In August, Defra stated that there would be no significant implications for UK GMO stakeholders in the event of a no-deal Brexit, suggesting that EU legislation would continue to apply after March 2019.
In contrast, the USA seems to be taking a much more relaxed approach, with the US Department of Agriculture stating that it will not regulate plants that have been modified by genome editing. Additionally, it is possible for genetically-modified organisms to be patented. The EPO has commented that “inventions in all fields of technology are patentable” in relation to this question, but has also stated that the method of obtaining the de-extinct species would need to be considered.
However, this does not clarify the position on genetically modified animal species and there are safety, conservation and ethical issues to be addressed that are not relevant when discussing crops. Additionally, if a “mammoth” was created with an almost-complete mammoth genome, would this be sufficient to call it a “mammoth” or would it still be a genetically modified organism? If a completely authentic genome is required, it is likely that these new animals will be treated as GMOs and not species in their own right.
Although no species has returned from extinction yet, gene-editing technology is advancing rapidly and it would be prudent for regulators to prepare now for the almost inevitable return of many of the world’s extinct species.