'Woolly' is a page-turning look at scientists pushing the limits of DNA research
Bestselling author Ben Mezrich tells a true story of genetics research being done at the cutting edge of science, morality, conservation, and – some might argue – humankind.
Four years from today, in one of the coldest, most foreboding places on earth, a young American scientist hikes with his Russian host to a barbed wire-topped enclosure a frigid four miles from Siberia’s Northeast Science Station. The Russian punches in a code, a chain-link door swings open, and Justin Quinn makes out a massive shape lumbering on the distance steppe – a shape that seems vaguely familiar, but big. Much too big, he thinks.
“This isn't possible...” he starts to say. But then Quinn remembers that at his Harvard lab, nobody said “impossible.” That word is banned.
Indeed, rather than just possible, it was nearly inevitable that this creature, extinct for more than three thousand years, would be walking across the Arctic toward him. It was the logical outcome of his and his colleagues’ work – efforts at the cutting edge of science, morality, conservation, and, some might argue, humankind.
In Woolly: The True Story of the De-Extinction of One of History’s Most Iconic Creatures, bestselling author Ben Mezrich weaves a page-turning tale leading up to this imagined future. But as his central character says, “science fiction” is just science once the fiction is removed. And so it is with "Woolly" – although highly dramatized, aside from those few scenes clearly marked in the future or ancient past, the book is nonfiction, a journey to the frontiers of both genetics and nature.
At the center of Mezrich’s narrative is Dr. George Church, “one of the most brilliant forward thinkers around,” and the talented young scientists working in his laboratory at Harvard University’s medical school. Years after Church helped envision and create the Human Genome Project, he and his students were pushing the limits of DNA research and manipulation, seeing genetics as a tool for everything from ending malaria to reversing aging.
“Church was fast becoming the face of the genetic revolution,” Mezrich writes, “an area of science that seemed to promise extraordinary advances from designer babies to immortality.”
He had also become entranced by the possibility of using new genetic science – tools that allow the writing of DNA, not just the reading of it – to resurrect species long extinct. And thanks to a chance conversation with a New York Times reporter, Church starts to focus this interest on one of the most iconic species no longer living: the woolly mammoth.
But as he gathers a team of eccentric and ambitious scientists to achieve what many see as impossible, Church is not alone. The woolly mammoth, it turns out, has become a holy grail of sorts to both other scientists across the globe looking to wow the world with the power of genetics, as well as to conservationists, who see the mammoth as a key answer to an Arctic ecosystem rapidly deteriorating – a deterioration that may soon have catastrophic consequences as melting permafrost released “more carbon than would be created by burning all the forests on Earth three times over.”
“The effects would be disastrous. The melting permafrost could suffocate the world,” Mezrich writes. When woolly mammoths trampled the region, the tundra’s topsoil was constantly churned, exposing lower layers to the cold air. The land was not “a scarred bed of tundra and lichen; it was a lush refuge of high grass.” If the woolly mammoths returned, not only would it reflect a mind-blowing feat of science, it could divert an ecological disaster just in time.
With his skill at dramatizing nonfiction, Mezrich brings readers along on this rollercoaster quest for the past and future. His tale travels to the icy depths of Kotelny Island, 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where the remains of woolly mammoths lie preserved beneath the ice, waiting for local hunters and scientists. It goes to the quixotic yet breathtakingly important Pleistocene Park, built by the reclusive Russian scientist Sergey Zimov to recreate a tundra ecosystem that could defuse “the ticking time bomb” of carbon-releasing melting permafrost. Mezrich takes readers into the sterile, technology-laden halls of Harvard’s most groundbreaking laboratories and into the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s elephant reserve outside of Orland, Fla., one stop on the scientists’ quest to find elephant cells that could be turned into woolly mammoths.
The nonfiction, real-time ending to all of this excitement is inconclusive. There are, as of this writing, no woolly mammoths yet trampling the permafrost. But Mezrich is clear on what he believes will happen, and he takes storytelling liberties to describe that future. If these fictionalized sections seem jolting, it may be only because the reader does not yet think like Church, whom Mezrich describes as feeling himself to be part of the future, even if he is frustratingly stuck in the past of today.
"Woolly" is by no means a textbook; those looking for the nitty-gritty details of modern genetics will find them elsewhere. But Mezrich’s ability to weave the details of DNA science into an easily accessible narrative does much to broaden the lay reader’s understanding of the tremendous developments and awe-inspiring capabilities of some of today’s most groundbreaking science.