AMESBURY, Mass. — In Massachusetts, research is underway that could not just reintroduce a species to the planet, but introduce a new concept; "De-extinction."
"At the moment this is an academic experiment," Justin Quinn said. "We are doing it for science, we are doing it to learn. Yes, the ultimate goal would be to create a woolly mammoth but for me personally, any animal that was driven to extinction by human hunting or human intervention of any kind, deserves a chance to be brought back into the wild."
As a senior research associate in the molecular biology and genetic engineering department at Warp Drive Bio in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Quinn, 33, spends his days helping to develop new drugs. But it is in his time off that Quinn is working on the Woolly Mammoth Revival project which seeks to return the giant mammals to an Earth they have not roamed in almost 4,000 years.
"The point of this is to restore ecosystems," Quinn said. "A lot of it is due to human hunting and we have lost keystone species as well as other species that depend on the keystone species to maintain the ecosystem. When you lose keystone species, you have a downstream effect and you lose other species, then the ecosystem becomes impoverished. So what we are trying to do is to bring back the richness of our former ecosystem."
Headed by noted synthetic biologist and Warp Drive co-founder Dr. George Church, the Woolly Mammoth Revival team has already sequenced over 99 percent of the mammoth's genome, according to Quinn, and hopes to bring one to term with the help of an Asian elephant host.
"You can imagine that the woolly mammoth is related to the elephant," Quinn said. "So that when they sequenced the woolly mammoth genome, they compared it to that of the Asian elephant. By doing so, they calculated the difference between them on the genomic level is 99.4 percent identical."
Quinn and his team currently have elephant cells growing in a Petri dish, as well as the genome-editing technology CRISPR which can enter those cells and replace certain genes of interest with that of mammoth DNA. It should take the elephant host two years to carry the mammoth and once it is born, the plan is to ultimately repopulate the species beginning at the Siberian research station Pleistocene Park.
"It is essentially environmental engineering by bringing animals back that once existed in that niche," Quinn said. "It's fringe science. Sometimes I have to pinch myself."