Woolly mammoths fighting

Dear Evil Engineer: Can I honour my heritage with a mammoth militia?

Image credit: Dreamstime

A villain feels there is a gap in the market for sieges that go the extra mile to impress.

Dear Evil Engineer,

I recently received by email the results of a DNA test revealing that I’m a descendant of the great military leader Hannibal. On the one hand I was quite surprised as I don’t remember taking a DNA test. On the other hand, this makes a lot of sense, as I’ve never lost a game of Risk and I’ve been treasurer of the regional Warhammer 40,000 Club for the past two years; clearly strategic military brilliance is hereditary!

I would like to honour and incorporate my heritage in my professional life. I run a small business which offers a range of expert sieging services: standard tier (guns), silver tier (guns and tanks), and gold tier (guns and tanks, accompanied by a bespoke pyromusical display and drone photography for a once-in-a-lifetime blockade). I feel it’d be appropriate to introduce a ‘platinum’ tier package incorporating war woolly mammoths, war elephants having been done to death by this point.

Trouble is, apparently woolly mammoths are extinct! Is there some way for me to engineer one?


A susceptible villain


Dear villain,

What a fascinating thing to learn, especially as Hannibal had no confirmed issue. But what do I know; I’m the Evil Engineer not the Evil Classicist, so you’re probably right!

War elephants are indeed passé by now. Although in antiquity they were terrifying, seemingly unstoppable creatures for charging enemy lines, by the medieval age they were already falling out of favour amid the rise of gunpowder-powered weapons like cannons. Even then, technology could do the job better than elephantry! However, I’m not the descendant of Hannibal, so I’ll not presume to advise you on military strategy.

To the engineering, then. No extinct species attracts as much scientific attention regarding their possible revival as the woolly mammoth. They are charismatic, with close living relatives today (having vanished just 10,000 years ago), and preserved carcasses surface fairly regularly in the thawing Siberian permafrost. In fact, hunters search the uninhabited New Siberian islands every year for mammoth remains, their tusks reaching $250,000 on the Chinese market. However, it is not only moneyed collectors who are interested in these treasures; palaeontologists would be as giddy as goats to find a perfectly preserved mammoth.

Some promising work has been done using these remains. In 2019, for instance, University of Kinki researchers reported in Nature that they had recovered DNA from a 28,000-year-old mammoth called Yuki. This showed some biological activity when implanted into mouse ova (although not enough to prompt cell division).

Theoretically, it isn’t impossible to clone a mammoth from a preserved body. Researchers from Siberian Northeastern Federal University and Sooam Biotech research foundation (the latter team headed by Hwang Woo-suk of “I’ve-cloned-human-cells” infamy) are attempting just that. Reports claim they extracted a vial of blood from a 40,000-yearold, nearly complete mammoth called Buttercup. They appear not to have acquired enough intact genetic material for cloning so far; that is unless Buttercup 2.0 is hidden in an underground vault in Siberia somewhere.

Working with ancient DNA is like sculpting with cobwebs; it disintegrates in moments. In a 2015 Cell paper, Swedish researchers reported they had sequenced the woolly mammoth genome – an incredible achievement. However, this was assembled using elephant DNA as an ‘outline’; some of the missing pieces may have contained unique mammoth genes rather than shared genes.

So, cloning is off the table for now; let’s turn instead to the synthetic biology approach. This would involve recovering some genetic information from a mammoth cell, transferring it to an egg from a related animal (Asian elephants are the closest living relative, sharing 99 per cent of genetic material), then implanting the resulting embryo into a uterus. Crispr makes this a much more realistic possibility than it was just 20 years past.

In 2015, the great bearded Harvard geneticist George Church kicked off a project to create a mammoth-elephant hybrid with a synthetic biology approach. He is focusing on genes associated with cold-climate adaptations, such as fur and increased body fat, and has so far modified 45 elephant genes to be more mammoth-y. However, this will probably need to be done for thousands of genes to account for the comparatively small genetic difference between Asian elephants and woolly mammoths.

Once the genes have been adapted, they will need to grow stem cells capable of generating an embryo, and then engineer an artificial womb for gestation (notably, these do not yet exist, with only one mouse having gestated full-term in an artificial womb). So far, Church’s predictions have not been met; he had hoped to create genetically engineered embryos resembling mammoths by 2019. There have been sparse updates on the project in recent years.

While I would recommend following Church’s work with interest – as it appears the most feasible of the woolly mammoth revival projects – you may like to consider an alternative approach to engineer a war woolly mammoth. May I suggest the marginally less high-tech solution of putting a woolly mammoth costume on a tank you already own? Tanks are superior weapons to Elephantids in every quality but spectacle. They can be reliably controlled, you can fit people inside them, and they won’t be bested by a tranquiliser dart or startled by your charming pyromusical displays.


The Evil Engineer

PS: Your ancestor’s use of elephantry in the Second Punic War may have been legendary, but eventually low-tech antielephant solutions deployed by the Romans (such as moving out of the way) rendered them rather impotent.

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