De-extinction is just what it sounds like: taking a species that has gone extinct, and through cloning or genetic engineering, bringing that species back into our world. Technically, de-extinction has happened once, albeit briefly: The bucardo (a goat-like creature) went extinct in 2000, and was successfully cloned in 2003 and born via a surrogate goat mother. However, the lone cloned bucardo suffered from breathing issues (common in early cloning efforts) and only lived 10 minutes. This might sound gloomy, but we’ve made a lot of advances since 2003, and the bucardo’s case proves that de-extinction is indeed possible.
The bucardo wasn’t an Ice Age megafauna, but the woolly mammoth certainly was. According to Revive & Restore, an organization focused on “genetic rescue of endangered and extinct species”:
The Woolly Mammoth has emerged as a leading candidate for this work. It can be attempted because a close relative of the mammoths still lives–the Asian elephant. Thanks to the similarity of their genomes, the genes of woolly mammoth traits can be edited into the Asian elephant genome, and the combination brought to life as an elephant cousin, once again adapted for the conditions of the far north.
The possibility of bringing back the mammoth might seem like a curiosity. Wouldn’t it be fun to see a woolly mammoth in a zoo? But the long-term goal is not to keep the new mammoths (they would be genetically engineered approximates, not exact replicas) in captivity. Instead, the Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival team headed by George Church (the Church Lab) hopes to one day release healthy herds of mammoths into the tundra of Eurasia and North America. The reintroduction of these grazers could help convert the tundra back into the mammoth steppe, or grasslands, it once was. Research suggests grasslands sequester carbon from the atmosphere more efficiently than other ecosystems, which could help slow down climate change. Along the way, Church and his team expect to learn things that could help with the conservation efforts for Asian elephants.