A tale of the resurrection of the woolly mammoth and how “biology and genetics [have] gone from passive observation to active creation.”
Bestselling author Mezrich (Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs, 2016, etc.) is a fine storyteller who likes offbeat topics. Film producers snap up his books (The Social Network, 21), including this one. The author describes this one as a “dramatic narrative account,” and he opens with something out of a Michael Crichton novel: 3,000 years ago, a 200-pound mammoth calf is born, and he’s “the last of his kind.” Fast-forward to today, where we meet Dr. George Church—“fast becoming the face of the genetic revolution”—in his lab at Harvard Medical School. This is his story as well as the story of the many graduate students working with him on genetic engineering. Their goal is to genetically engineer synthetically sequenced woolly mammoth genes in Asian elephant cells. Meanwhile, Sergey Zimov, a Russian scientist, has been working at his own science center in Siberia studying the permafrost, a “land mass covering as much as 20 percent of the Earth’s surface.” Zimov’s research revealed that it “held a devastating secret”—it was a “ticking time bomb.” As the Arctic warms, the permafrost begins to melt, releasing carbon dioxide and methane gas into the air. Eventually, it would “release more carbon than would be created by burning all the forests on Earth three times over,” an event that “could suffocate the world.” If, Church speculated, a new generation of mammoths could be created and returned to their Siberian grazing grounds, then maybe the ecology of the late Pleistocene could be re-created and defuse the bomb. Mezrich recounts Church’s career and accomplishments in genetics as he works toward achieving this lofty goal. Along the way, he also highlights important issues in wildlife conservation. There’s a lot of science here, but on the whole, Mezrich does a good job of making it accessible.
An enthralling story only occasionally inhibited by languorous prose.