Mammoth-elephant hybrid two years away - scientists

The woolly mammoth's extinction was thought to be brought about by climate change and hunting (Getty)
The woolly mammoth's extinction was thought to be brought about by climate change and hunting (Getty)

They haven't roamed the Earth for more than around 4000 years, but scientists could be on the verge of bringing the woolly mammoth back with the help of their living relatives.

The scientist leading the "de-extinction" effort, Professor George Church from Harvard University, says the first hybrid embryo of the mammoth and Asian elephant could be two years away, The Guardian reports.

"Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo," said Prof Church said ahead of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston this week.

Prof Church says the 'mammophant' would be more like an elephant with some mammoth traits.

On the outside, the mammophant would have small ears and long, shaggy hair, while on the inside it would have cold-adapted blood and subcutaneous fat.

It'd be done by splicing mammoth genes into the elephant DNA using the gene-editing tool CRISPR.

Work on the ambitious project so far has stopped at the cell stage, but if the embryo is successfully created it could still be years until you'll see one roaming around.

Two years of experimenting has seen researchers able to increase the number of edits putting mammoth DNA into the elephant genome from 15 to 45.

Instead of using an Asian elephant as a surrogate to the hybrid, Prof Church plans to grow the animal in an artificial womb.

The mammoth is more closely related to the Asian elephant than it is the African elephant.

"We hope to do the entire procedure ex-vivo [outside a living body]," he said.

"It would be unreasonable to put female reproduction at risk in an endangered species."

But not everyone is happy with the project.

Zoology professor at the University of Manchester, Matthew Cobb, questions the ethics of bringing back such an animal.

"The proposed 'de-extinction' of mammoths raises a massive ethical issue - the mammoth was not simply a set of genes, it was a social animal, as is the modern Asian elephant," he told The Guardian.

"What will happen when the elephant-mammoth hybrid is born? How will it be greeted by elephants?"

He says an animal grown in an artificial womb wouldn't have the vital early interactions with its mother.

During the last Ice Age, the woolly mammoth is believed to have had a massive range across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America.

Its extinction is thought to have been brought about by climate change and human hunting.