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The return of the Woolly Mammoth could thaw ties with Russia

Even under a new US administration, US-Russian relations are cool at best. US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin left their much-anticipated June summit after agreeing on little more than that nuclear war should never be waged. In the course of diplomatic negotiations, it is a humble achievement to agree that a nuclear Armageddon should be avoided.

Since then, there has not been much room for optimism; In August, Russia made plans to ban foreigners from occupying the US embassy and consulates in Russia, reducing mission staff from more than 2,200 to around 120. Meanwhile, Russian actors seem unfazed in their efforts to wage malicious hacking campaigns against a wide range of US targets, despite Biden's calls in June for Putin to contain these ransomware attacks.

But amid much of the otherwise bleak diplomatic outlook, hope for warmer relationships and improved strategic stability could come from a highly unexpected source: the woolly mammoth.

Even under a new US administration, US-Russian relations are cool at best. US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin left their much-anticipated June summit after agreeing on little more than that nuclear war should never be waged. In the course of diplomatic negotiations, it is a humble achievement to agree that a nuclear Armageddon should be avoided.

Since then, there has not been much room for optimism; In August, Russia made plans to ban foreigners from occupying the US embassy and consulates in Russia, reducing mission staff from more than 2,200 to around 120. Meanwhile, Russian actors seem unfazed in their efforts to wage malicious hacking campaigns against a wide range of US targets, despite Biden's calls in June for Putin to contain these ransomware attacks.

But amid much of the otherwise bleak diplomatic outlook, hope for warmer relationships and improved strategic stability could come from a highly unexpected source: the woolly mammoth.

As bizarre as it sounds, the laboratories of Harvard Medical School are making serious efforts by respected geneticist George Church to revive the mammoth from extinction. Working with Russian scientists in northeast Siberia and a team of conservationists in California, Church hopes to release a herd of creatures virtually indistinguishable from Ice Age woolly mammoths within the next two decades.

The project to revive the Woolly Mammoth creates unique opportunities for bilateral cooperation in the areas of climate change and Arctic policy. These problems cross borders and have a serious, growing impact on the internal affairs of both Russia and the United States. And dealing with them requires intergovernmental cooperation – regardless of what other political disputes color the relations between Moscow and Washington. If successful, the Woolly Mammoth Revival project could change the tenor of the Arctic itself and make it a place of collaboration rather than total competition.

Although the Cold War is often referred to as a technological competition between Moscow and Washington, science often provided fertile ground for cooperation between the two adversaries. This was the case even during the lowest of the bilateral lows. Particularly fruitful avenues of cooperation have been joint US-Soviet manned spaceflight efforts, bilateral vaccine diplomacy efforts and joint efforts during Operation Breakthrough to rescue a group of gray whales trapped in sea ice off the coast of Alaska. Like climate change, these are cross-border problems. You therefore benefit from coordinated international solutions.

Enter the woolly mammoth. The main goal of Church's project is to turn back time on the arctic tundra and restore the Pleistocene grasslands. Over the next 20 years, he plans to release these lab-grown mammoths in Pleistocene Park, an extensive nature reserve in northeast Siberia operated by Sergey and Nikita Zimov, a respected father-and-son research team. The Zimovs have already successfully rewilded several species that used to inhabit this northern grassland, such as the musk ox and the steppe bison.

As the Pleistocene drew to a close, woolly mammoths and other large grazing animals that once populated the northern steppes disappeared. Grasses and herbs that used to feed the herds of the mammoth steppes have given way to less productive plant species such as slow-growing mosses, shrubs and larches. Large herbivores that cut through the landscape used to play a key role in compacting and distributing snow layers. Without these species, the cold temperatures of northern winters penetrate the soil less effectively than they used to. This, coupled with warmer summer temperatures, threatens to accelerate the melting of the region's permafrost, which in turn will accelerate the release of methane. The degradation of the Arctic permafrost threatens to release around 1,400 gigatons of methane into the stratosphere, which would be catastrophic from a climate change perspective given the strong warming properties of methane. "That would be an extremely inconvenient truth because it dwarfs the 10 gigatons per year that all humans collectively use and abuse," Church said.

Research by Church, the Zimovs, and others suggests that the reintroduction of grazing animals, even thousands of years after they disappeared from these parts, can play a key role in restoring historic grasslands. The reintroduction of grasslands in these regions is expected to encourage greater biodiversity and allow large herbivores to thrive. Large grazing animals, in turn, compact the soil so that the permafrost can freeze deeper in the winter months. Wool mammoths offer a special added value here. According to Church's team, they were considered to be the grassland engineers in their day, preventing trees from growing that would break up the grassland and thereby impair their natural ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. In addition, the mammoths distributed huge amounts of nutrients over large areas through their feces.

When asked why he chose the woolly mammoth as the mascot of his extermination project, Church said that given the effects of methane on warming, the creature holds significant promise in terms of mitigating the risks of climate change while being audience-friendly enough to be viable to be selection. “They're big and charismatic and they could win a popularity contest, but they're also vegetarians. We didn't want to bring the T-Rex back, ”he explained.

In recent years, other research teams, including a group in South Korea, have caused a stir about the possibility of cloning the mammoth. However, at present this option does not appear to be practical as it would require the extraction of living cells. This is an obvious problem since mammoths became extinct thousands of years ago.

The Church team did not face this obstacle. He works with CRISPR-Cas 9, a gene editing technology that enables scientists to modify a creature's genetic material by deliberately cutting strands of DNA and either adding or deleting genetic material to add to the entire DNA sequence change. By allowing scientists to physically alter the structure of a creature's genome, this technology offers hope for everything from preventing disease to, as in the case of the Church project, altering the properties of living species.

Church's team has worked for years to piece together the DNA of woolly mammoths with that of Asian elephants, the mammoth's closest living relative. The aim is to create a new breed of hybrid mammoth elephants that are resistant to cold, virus and poachers. To achieve the latter, Church genetically engineered her tusks so that they are short and therefore unprofitable for hunters. After years of pioneering the project, he estimates that his team is about 40 genetic adaptations away from successfully developing a cell that can create the embryo of the first new woolly mammoth.

Once the genetic engineering part of this project is completed, efficient population growth will be a major barrier to the mammoth re-introduction into the wild. To spawn new mammoths – first without hindering efforts to protect Asian elephants and then ensuring the efficient distribution of the revived species – Church plans to rely on in vitro birthing technology. This is not to be confused with in vitro fertilization, where an embryo is created in a laboratory setting. In vitro childbirth uses an artificial uterus to develop the fetus from embryo to baby.

Given how long it will take to pin all of these new technologies down, Church estimates that in about 16 years' time, mammoths will be working hard to restore the grasslands. At this point, the reproductive efforts of this starting population will continue to be complemented by in vitro development efforts in the laboratory.

Surely the idea that we are only 16 years away from seeing woolly mammoths roam their ancestral lands will sound far-fetched to many. But Church is known for making the impossible possible. As science journalist Torill Kornfeldt describes in her book The Re-Origin of Species: A Second Chance for Extinct Animals: “People would call [the church] an incurable, almost insane optimist, if not all the scientific progress it predicted had has actually come true. And in many cases it even happened in his own laboratory. ”In addition to his efforts to eradicate extinction, Church is known for his pioneering work in genome sequencing and synthetic biology.

And between the genetic work his team has already done and the successful rewilding efforts that have already taken place in the Pleistocene Park, Church is confident that this project will be a success.

Scientific research in the field of genetic engineering has made enormous strides in recent years. But it was accompanied by a lack of clear political guidelines. There are currently only a few international laws and standards that regulate the extinction of animal species. The authors of a study on de-extinction policy from 2017 explain: “It will be crucial to clarify how extinct species are classified according to national and international law, especially with regard to their potential conservation status. … Since the extermination debate is still relatively young, [extinct animal species] are currently not explicitly taken into account in the legislation. "

But it is precisely in these legal gray areas that Washington and Moscow have succeeded in working together successfully even at earlier diplomatic lows. In particular, the two countries have a history of working together on matters of overriding mutual interest relating to the then unregulated areas. This is evidenced by the Antarctic and Space Demilitarization Treaties, both of which were passed during the Cold War.

The Arctic, which lacks a central international treaty or central government body, is riddled with governance gaps, including – according to a recent report by RAND Corporation – "limited dialogue and transparency on military issues, limited ability to implement government agreements, and tensions between them." growing need for inclusivity and the interests of the arctic states. "

But there is room for optimism. As Church noted, “One of the nice things about science is that when it is not required for national defense, it is very divided and cooperative – it sometimes cuts through points where diplomacy cannot get through. Very often you can hold a scientific conference, even if the nation-states give each other to the throat. "

Inspired by such feelings, Church, the Zimovs, and their respective teams move forward despite the lack of a clear government policy. The latter would be easy to develop. This is a rare opportunity for low-stakes diplomats to strike a deal that is mutually beneficial, and thus both sides can agree to the widening rift between the US and Russia with minimal political cost. In addition, it is a project that fires the imagination and is full of opportunities for cultural diplomacy on both sides.

There is little evidence to support the two governments' views on this particular resuscitation project, which could be due to the fact that at this point it is almost impossible to predict exactly when, where and how the mammoths will be released into the wild. The extermination process could hypothetically be regulated by a patchwork of environmental patents, species protection patents and other laws. For example, in the United States, the release of genetically modified organisms into the wild would trigger a federal environmental impact assessment and likely an additional state assessment, and could also have an impact on patents. All of this could be further complicated by the process by which the Mammut De Extinction Project moves from private laboratories to the public sphere. Given the multitude of variables at play, policymakers may be forgiven for taking a wait-and-see approach.

But international governance on this matter is a goal that all should work towards; Russia's prolific track record of unexpectedly arming certain picky species – including dolphins and cockroaches – is a compelling motive for US cooperation. The last thing the United States wants is woolly mammoths trained for combat operations.

Ultimately, climate change is coming, and none of the world's great powers can afford to fight this fight alone. Desperate diplomatic times call for resourceful measures. The United States and Russia have an established history of stubbornness, and neither side has much to gain by giving in to political disputes right now. But the two countries have a rich history of scientific cooperation even in the darkest foreign policy epochs. The project to revive the Woolly Mammoth goes back to ancient history, but offers a concrete path to joint measures against climate change – a topic that is becoming more and more present over time. And it can only attract a smile.

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