Efforts by geneticists to reintroduce a live woolly mammoth are closer to reality than ever before.
An international team of geneticists are working with genetic material from a recently discovered, partially intact woolly mammoth that was discovered embedded in Siberia last year. Their goal is to eventually attempt to clone the mammoth, not unlike the storyline of the famous Hollywood movie, "Jurassic Park."
The scientists studied the mammoth's DNA for about 10 months and found it to be of high quality, which is unusual because even well preserved specimens such as this ice-encased mammoth will begin experiencing immediate DNA degradation upon death.
Radik Khayrullin, of the Russian Association of Medical Anthropologists, told The Siberian Times, "The data we are about to receive will give us a high chance to clone the mammoth." Sir Ian Wilmut, the scientist whose team created the first cloned creature, a sheep named Dolly, in 1996, offered a slightly more cautious echo of Khayrullin's declaration, "I've always been very sceptical about the whole idea, but it dawned on me that if you could clear the first hurdle of getting viable cells from mammoths, you might be able to do something useful and interesting."
Other scientists have shown more hesitation in making any definitive statements concerning cloning a mammoth. Harvard University geneticist and lead researcher on the project, George Church, has been unraveling the mystery of the mammoth DNA and has even inserted 14 mammoth genes into the living skin cells of a modern elephant. Church said, "We have not published it in a scientific journal because there is more work to do, but we plan to do so."
Church's colleague Alex Greenwood of the American Museum of Natural History's mammalogy department in New York City also expressed skepticism that cloning a mammoth the way that Dolly or the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were created is even a reasonable suggestion at this point. For Greenwood, the DNA offers a more realistic opportunity to learn things like how mammoths relate to modern elephants, and even what eventually killed them off (if it was disease, they hope to find evidence of that in the DNA).
The insertion of the mammoth genes into live elephant tissue samples is, however, a step towards the goal of cloning, The mammoth genes have essentially become viable or "come to life" in a sense, and can be further replicated and studied. Other teams, including one in South Korea, are also working on the goal of cloning a woolly mammoth. The basic thought is that if the DNA samples could be manipulated into a viable, transferable sample, they might be implanted into the egg of a living female elephant.
The research and resulting news stories have, of course, reignited the controversy over cloning extinct animals.
Even Khayrullin alluded to the ethical challenges associated with the pursuit. "It is one thing to clone it for scientific purpose," he said, "and another to clone for the sake of curiosity." Greenwood too, acknowledged the ethical quandary inherent in bringing back extinct creatures: "In principle, they don't belong here anymore."
Woolly mammoths, as a species, are at least 400,000 years old but did not become completely extinct until only around 4,000 years ago.