Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive one of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures (A Book Review)

I was wondering if anyone may have seen a recent episode of Madam Secretary on NBC?  One of the fictional, but based upon possible actual events, plotlines was an outbreak of small pox that was linked to exposure due to Russian drilling in the permafrost of Siberia.  Discussions of that led to a discussion of the critical importance that the permafrost, or rather the continuing existence of an unmelted permafrost, has to the long term survival of our planet.

One of the solutions discussed for preventing permafrost melt was the reintroduction of the ancient Woolly Mammoth to regions covered by the permafrost.  That sounds like science fiction since the Woolly Mammoth is extinct.  However, in an homage to Jurassic Park, there are credible efforts currently being made to combine the DNA of the Woolly Mammoth with a current day Asian elephant in order to produce a live Woolly Mammoth.  In part, this has been made possible by the discovery of Woolly Mammoth remains buried deep within the permafrost.

Here is an internet article relating to a find in October of 2015 …

https://www.express.co.uk/news/science/611035/Scientists-bring-woolly-mammoth-back-LIFE-discovery

Woolly - Mezrich picture and books

This is a review of an excellent book available from author Ben Mezrich:  Woolley:  The True Story of the Quest to Revive one of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures.  That book will also soon be made into a motion picture by 20th Century Fox.  Harvard graduate Mezrich has written many books, starting with “Threshhold” which he wrote in 1996.  Perhaps his best known work to date is The Accidental Billionaires:  The Founding of Facebook.  That book was adapted to the big screen by Aaron Sorkin (creator of TV’s The West Wing) and made into the hit movie The Social Network.

Here is a brief, but very informative interview that Ben Mezrich did with CBS This Morning (5:01) …

 

Think this is just some sort of Jurassic Park pipe dream … or perhaps even a potential nightmare?   Here is a You Tube video of a conversation between Ben Mezrich and Dr. George Church – American biologist, chemist and geneticist, where they discuss the possible real-life version of Jurassic Park involving the Woolly Mammoth (18:38) …

 

This book recounts the life of George McDonald Church.  It  describes his involvement in, among many other pursuits, bringing the Woolly Mammoth back from extinction in order to prevent  the catastrophic melting of the permafrost that covers up to 20% of our planet.

While the de-extinction of the Woolly Mammoth is at the heart of this book, the book also introduces some of the other researchers, referred to as “Revivalists” who join Church’s team or work beside him.  Besides the Woolly Mammoth project, some of Church’s other projects currently in process include the introduction of malaria-proof mosquitos and the reversal of the human aging process – nothing like thinking big, right?

Two of the main collaborators with Church are Stewart Brand and his wife, Ryan Phelan.   When Church first met them, an interesting anecdote is that he found them to be creators of a specially designed glass with a UV coating that is visible to birds and prevents them from crashing into the glass. The UV coating is modeled after a spider’s web, which is designed so that birds won’t fly into the web.  As Brand said to George Church, “Spiders teaching people how to protect birds.  Pretty heady stuff.”

Woolly - Cameos

Why was the Woolly Mammoth chosen as the focus of Church’s research?

Interestingly, when the idea of being able to regenerate a previously extinct species became a feasible reality to Church, the extinct passenger pigeon was also a candidate for the initial focus of his research.  The Woolly Mammoth was chosen after Church met Sergey Zimov, a Russian scientist and researcher, and became aware of the Mammoth’s great potential for contributing to saving the planet as we know it.

It was at an October 2012 meeting of scientists at the headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington DC that Church met and listened to Zimov recount the research being done by Zimov and his son Nikita in the far off reaches of Siberia.  Zimov had been conducting experiments on how to save the permafrost that, as previously mentioned, covers perhaps 20% of the world’s land surface.  The most crucial fact explained by Zimov is that the survival of the permafrost is of paramount importance to the future of the planet.  Should the permafrost melt, enough carbon dioxide and methane gas would be released into the atmosphere to irreversibly affect global warming.  That information held the key to Church’s quest to find a reason to make the Woolly Mammoth the initial focus of his plan to regenerate an extinct species.

Why is the Woolly Mammoth crucial in the fight against global warming?

Without mammals present, like the Wooly Mammoth, to trample and till the soil above the permafrost, as well as to expose the permafrost beneath the snow, the permafrost is melting and the temperatures in the Arctic regions are increasing at twice the rate as they are in other areas of the world.  Once melted, the permafrost would release the tremendous amounts of carbon dioxide and methane gas trapped beneath it.  Exposure of the permafrost to the elements was crucial so that it would remain continually frozen by the frigid air of the Arctic.  But the arrival of man precipitated the extinction of the Woolly Mammoth thereby removing one of the main protective elements for the permafrost.

One of the questions I had while reading Zimov’s theory on the importance of maintaining the frozen permafrost is “How do we know that there is so much carbon dioxide and methane under the permafrost?”  Please read the following brief article that explains why both methane and carbon dioxide are so abundant under the permafrost.

https://nsidc.org/cryosphere/frozenground/methane.html

Zimov’s success in combating the melting permafrost

In a small area of Siberia that Zimov calls Pleistocene Park, with the reintroduction of animals that still exist, such as bison, reindeer and moose, as well as using things such as tractors, bulldozers and even an old World War II tank, Zimov has mimicked the presence of the beasts that had once roamed the Arctic and protected the permafrost.  Since they began in 1988 (two years before Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park), Zimov’s experiments have been successful in lowering the permafrost temperature in Pleistocene Park by 15 degrees.

But what Zimov did not have was any way to accumulate enough of those present day animals to have any type of significant effect on the worldwide permafrost.  Even his bulldozers and tank couldn’t replicate everything a Woolly Mammoth could do.  As Zimov told the group of scientists, “Unfortunately, they don’t create dung.”  That became the reason and driving force behind Church, Brand and Phelan’s quest to resurrect the Woolly Mammoth.

How will the Woolly Mammoth be brought back?

The key to this project is to combine the DNA of an elephant, an Asian elephant in particular, with the genetically modified DNA of a Woolly Mammoth, and the elephant would then give birth, but not to a cloned, or to a modified elephant, but rather to an actual Woolly Mammoth.  Initially, the researchers were met with skepticism and rejection from zookeepers as they tried to acquire tissue samples from live elephants.  The story of Jurassic Park  was well known and there was widespread fear that the project’s goal, intentional or not, was to either change the elephant into a Woolly Mammoth or to potentially create one of the genetic monsters made so famous in Jurassic Park.  Eventually, stem cells obtained from an elephant’s discarded placenta, harvested immediately after birth, would partially fulfill this need.

The team’s search for a source of Asian elephants led them, somewhat surprisingly, to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.  They were in the process of retiring their elephants from their shows in 2013 and were intrigued by the research of Church and his team, rather than being put off the way many zoos were at that time.  In a sort of Quid Quo Pro, Church and his team are working on developing an anti-herpes virus to combat the virus that is killing many of the Asian elephants that they needed so badly to host their Woolly Mammoths.

One of the key elements I found fascinating, and reassuring, in my reading of this book is the overriding principle that seems to guide this research by Church.  As in the case of finding a cure for the herpes that threatens the Asian elephant, Church is very determined that their research will benefit the existing elephant population, and is not in any way intended to replace them with Woolly Mammoths.  They have even gone so far as to come up with a synthetic elephant uterus so that female elephants would not have to deal with the inevitable and emotional loss of their young as early attempts would likely fail.

The end of the book implies Mezrich’s optimistic prediction that a Woolly Mammoth may exist in as few as three years.  As Church himself says in one of the interviews, his expectation is that it will happen within the next century.  Either way, they both seem certain that this will happen and that it will help save the permafrost.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that no matter how successful the efforts are to bring back the Woolly Mammoth from extinction, that is in no way the sole answer to the global warming that threatens our future existence.  If we save the permafrost, it will only prevent that from, on its own, negating any other benefits that will have accrued from our other necessary efforts to combat the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  Those efforts must and will continue in spite of the head-in-the-sand mindset of the current U.S. administration.

 

Woolly - cartoon 2

 

 

 

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