For the first time since the woolly mammoth went extinct, its genes are working again, Popular Science reports. Sure, it's only in a lab; woolly mammoths haven't wandered the planet for about 4,000 years. But the effort at Harvard has brought the return of the animal a tiny bit closer, the magazine notes. Researchers were able to splice mammoth genes—specifically, those coding for aspects of their hair, ears, and fat—into the DNA of Asian elephants. The genes came from a mammoth preserved in Arctic permafrost, RT reports. "We now have functioning elephant cells with mammoth DNA in them," geneticist George Church told the Sunday Times, per RT. But it's a baby step, because "just making a DNA change isn’t that meaningful," Church says.
The next step is getting the cells to become specific tissues; after that, the goal would be combined mammoth-elephant embryos to be placed in artificial wombs—though developing the wombs themselves is still pie in the sky. Why do all this? One idea is to engineer hybrid elephants that can survive in colder climates, thus helping them avoid the dangers of humans and other threats. Church's work offers hope for the idea of "de-extinction" by genetic splicing, but that's just one method under investigation: As NBC News reported last year, other teams have been working on simply getting usable woolly mammoth DNA from existing remains. We may owe it to the animals to bring them back, as the possible cause of their extinction. (There's also a chance dogs could be responsible.)