The billionaire founder of Paypal has funded an ambitious project to resurrect the woolly mammoth, reports suggest.
Peter Thiel, who is worth $2.7billion (£2.1 billion), has reportedly put $100,000 (£77,000) of his own funds into a scheme that will modify elephant cells using DNA recovered from the bodies of frozen mammoths.
The ancient beasts went extinct more than 10,000 years ago, with scientists unsure whether human hunting or climate change finished them off.
Now Mr Thiel is said to have backed a top Harvard team attempting to bring the enormous mammals back to life.
The claims were published in a book called ‘Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures’, by American author Ben Mezrich.
‘Just remember: It’s only science fiction until we remove the fiction, then it becomes real,’ one scientist told Mr Mezrich, according to MIT Technology Review.
Mr Mezrich, who wrote a book about the founding of Facebook that was adapted into the critically-acclaimed film The Social Network, claimed Mr Thiel was having breakfast with Church when he asked to fund the ‘craziest thing’ he was working on.
Mr Thiel chose the mammoth, turning down an anti-ageing scheme and an artificial intelligence project, according to the author.
This is not the first time that the Harvard team has found its ambitious mammoth project in the spotlight this year.
In February, the group announced that the scheme would take just two more years to produce the ‘nearest possible thing to a mammoth’ that could be created.
The final beast would be a hybrid between an Asian elephant and a mammoth.
It would be created from the DNA extracted from frozen mammoth carcasses retrieved from permafrost.
If the Harvard University scientists succeed it will mark a turning point in plans to revive mammoths – by programming their genes into an Asian elephant.
The bundle of cells would have genes for mammoth features such as shaggy long hair, thick layers of fat, and blood that is perfectly suited to flowing in sub zero conditions.
The scientists have ambitious plans to grow it within an artificial womb rather than recruit a female elephant as a surrogate mother.
Since starting the project in 2015, the researchers have increased the number of ‘edits’ where mammoth DNA has been spliced into the elephant genome from 15 to 45.
Professor George Church, who heads the Harvard team, said: ‘We’re working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and are basically trying to establish embryogenesis in the lab.
‘The list of edits affects things that contribute to the success of elephants in cold environments.
‘We already know about ones to do with small ears, sub-cutaneous fat, hair and blood, but there are others that seem to be positively selected.’
He added: ‘Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant/mammoth embryo. Actually, it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits.
‘We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years.’
The woolly mammoth roamed across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America during the last Ice Age and vanished around 10,000 years ago.
Their closest living relative is the Asian, rather than the African, elephant.
‘De-extincting’ the mammoth has become a realistic prospect because of revolutionary gene editing techniques that allow the precise selection and insertion of DNA from specimens frozen over millennia in Siberian ice.
The most widely used technique, known as CRISPR/Cas9, has transformed genetic engineering since it was first demonstrated in 2012.
The system allows the ‘cut and paste’ manipulation of strands of DNA with a precision not seen before.
Using this technique, scientists could cut and paste preserved mammoth DNA into Asian elephants to create and elephant-mammoth hybrid.