Saturday 18 February 2017


fake Newsnight footage

And now for something completely different...

Last night's Newsnight, besides interviewing the Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins and Guardian (US) writer Jill Abramson, also interviewed a scientist who occasionally writes for the Guardian and who the Guardian interviewed about the story under discussion - which is doubtless where Ian Katz & Co. got the idea to interview him from in the first place.

Sometimes you wonder if the ex-Guardian editor of Newsnight might still have a thing for the Guardian! - though, in fairness, he did also have John McTernan on, and Mr McT. writes mainly for the Telegraph. 

That's more of the same though. So now, as promised, for something completely different (though as it's another transcription it's not that different)...

It concerns the possibility of mammophants - a fascinating prospect, albeit one fraught with ethical issues. I found it interesting. (Brace yourselves for the bit about global warming though!)

KIRSTY WALK: Finally tonight, scientists from Harvard believe they're just two years away from bringing the woolly mammoth back from the grave. The great beasts died out 4,000 years ago but they're only bodily extinct - they're not genetically extinct. The Harvard team hopes to use a powerful gene editing tool to splice together elephant DNA with mammoth genes they've found lying frozen in the Siberian ice. The Harvard team itself are keeping pretty schtum until they've actually published their findings in full. But joining me now from Salford is Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology from Manchester University. Good evening Professor Cobb. What is it that these scientists are actually trying to achieve? 

MATTHEW COBB: They are trying to do a number of things. They are using this incredibly powerful technique called CRISPR, which George Church, one of the key researchers involved, has been involved in developing. This enables you to change single letters in the DNA code, to alter it in any organism at will. This is going to change biological discovery and medicine. It is already having massive effects. They want to introduce into the elephant genome, the Asian elephant, some of the genes which they think helped the mammal is to survive in colder climate - make them hairy, for example, or have greater subcutaneous fat. But they only claim that they will be able to create an embryo with these genes. At the moment, they have no timeline on when they would actually have an elephant with proper mammoth genes in it wandering around the steppes. We're not going to see herds of mammoths trumping along the steppes of Siberia any time soon I'm afraid.

KW: But the claim that is made is that, actually, having what they are calling a kind of mammophant, that's not actually going to be a mammoth, if it ever gets out there on the permafrost, what it would actually do is help counter global warming. What do you make of that claim?

MC: There are far better ways of countering global warming.

KW: You'd need thousands and thousands of them!

MC: Who knows what they are going to do. Professor Church thinks they will dig into the soil and this will help bring in cold air to slow down the melting of the permafrost. I think we would be better off dealing with the release of carbon dioxide which is increasing the temperature. That is the key issue. This is incredibly exciting work - at one level because it shows the power of this technique - but really the ultimate thing is an elephant or a mammoth is not just a bag of genes. It is an animal that has a history, has a social life, and this thing they would created would be completely separate from anything else like it. Nothing else like it would have ever existed. 

KW: But scientists like that challenge, don't they?

MC: Yes, but ethicists and the whole of the community...and this is just one example of the questions that this gene editing technique is going to pose us all over the next few years, major ethical issues we will have to come to terms with. 

KW: Well, let's talk about those ethical issues. What are they?

MC: For a start, an elephant and a mammoth is a social organism. At the moment they are suggesting that they will not be doing IVF on an African or an Asian elephant. That is possible, but they are clearly concerned that if they manipulate the embryo and then implant it into the elephant something might go horribly wrong. It might grow too large, or whatever. So they are planning - and this is where I think it gets into the realms of science fiction - they are planning to have an artificial womb in which they will grow this elephant for 22 months, up to a weight of 100 kilos. I think we are a long way off from that. The problem would be that even if you are able to do that - and Church is a pretty clever guy, maybe he'll be able to sort it out - anybody who has been a mother, or who has been close to someone who is a mother, knows that a baby is not just a thing that is being fed. It is alive, it's interacting with the mother, it's learning things in the womb. The same is true of an elephant or of a mammoth baby. So you would end up producing this very, very isolated and strange organism which would have no social connection with its kind. It would have no other kind. If you tried to introduce it into a herd of Asian elephants, they might reject it because it smelt funny, because it behaved funny. I think, given that these are elephants and not mice or rats, there is a major ethical issue about whether this is the right thing to do. 

KW: Thank you, Professor.

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