In 1980, Russian geophysician Sergey Zimov moved to the Republic of Sakha in the northern Siberian region of Yakutia, to study causes of Pleistocene extinctions and atmospheric changes in greenhouse gases at one of the largest research stations in the artic, the North-East Scientific Station.
Sergey learnt that the permafrost has been locking in 500 gigatons (billion tonnes) of organic carbon over millions of square kilometers. This is equivalent to 2.5 times of all present rainforests combined. This carbon is sequestered by the frozen soils that presently measure about -3 degrees Celsius, yet is warming up at about one degree each decade. This means that by the year 2045, all of that carbon could be released to the atmosphere.
Thankfully, Sergey has a plan to prevent this from happening. He has shown that the temperatures are 10 – 15 degrees Celsius lower in regions where there are animals, and postulates that animals trampling on snow will expose the ground to colder temperatures that prevent the ice from melting. The presence of grazing animals will also lead to grasses replacing the mosses that will stabilize the soil, while the lighter colours of grass will further reflect more sunlight.
In 1988, Sergey initiated a side project ‘Pleistocene Park’, to restore the republic’s former biodiversity in a 160 square kilometer of pilot lowland comprising meadow, forest, and willow shrubland that is accessible only by helicopter. His team has gradually re-introduced extant animals that had survived the Pleistocene (or their closest descendants), including under a hundred animals from six large animal groups: bison, moose , musk oxen, reindeer, Wapiti, and Yakutian horses. He has plans to eventually acclimatize carnivores such as the Siberian tiger and the Asiatic lion, but can greatly speed up his objective of recreating the Ice Age ecosystem if the wooly Mammoth were revived.
This is where the recent work of a Singapore-US team, comprising researchers from NTU, The University of Chicago, and Penn State University, comes in. Scientists from The Mammoth Museum of the Institute of Applied Ecology at the North-Eastern Federal University (with some 2,000 specimens including the world’s best preserved specimen “Yuka”), Korean biotech firm Sooam, and the Beijing Genomics Institute have been searching for mammoth DNA, while but the Singapore team has produced and released a high resolution genome or genetic blueprint that identifies 1.4 million genetic variants unique to the mammoth.
Professor Stephan Christoph Shuster, research director at NTU’s Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) and former co-lead of the Mammoth Genome Project at Pennsylvania State University (where his work was recognized as one of the “Top 10 Scientific Discoveries” of 2008 by Time magazine and earned him a place in Time’s “100 Most Influential People” list in 2009!), explained to the Straits Times that his team has identified and replicated the gene that affects temperature sensation and hair growth from mammoth hair samples, and believes that there clearly will come a time when there will eventually be a resurrected mammoth either by swopping a viable mammoth nucleus into an Asian elephant (the mammoth’s closest relative) egg or re-engineering the Asian elephant’s genome to build a mammoth-elephant hybrid.
We’re so amazed that the first steps of recreating this Ice Age creature is happening right here in sunny Singapore, and certainly looking forward to witnessing the mammoth’s revival in our lifetime!