In March 2012, the Telegraph reported (1) about just such a project, “an agreement for the joint research regarding the restoration of the mammoth has been concluded between the China National Genebank (BGI), Sooam [Biotech of South Korea] and the North Eastern Federal University (NEFU) [Russia]” (2).
According to Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, the three groups have been working together to “retrieve and research mammoth samples for the purpose of understanding their genomics and possibly cloning a live mammoth from a surrogate elephant effectively restoring the mammoth from extinction.”
To achieve this, a mobile laboratory was set up on the NEFU campus. This placed the team in “close proximity” of the sites where scientists have been working to obtain cells from the frozen remains of woolly mammoths.
Woolly Mammoths and National Geographic Documentary
The extinct group of elephants know as mammoths (genus Mammuthus) migrated from Africa over 3.5 million years ago. They ended up in Eurasia, settling in woodlands, savannas and grasslands.
The first appearance of woolly mammoths happened over 400,000 years ago. It’s believed that northeastern Siberia was their home with the mammoths evolving to withstand the intense cold with a dense undercoat along with “guard hairs” that grew up to three feet long (3).
Areas in Siberia are graveyards for those ancient creatures. National Geographic filmed a documentary aired in 2013 as it followed the Korean, Russian and Chinese team. The scientists set out on a 3-week trek to recover frozen samples of the woolly mammoth from a water-filled cave (4).
Perhaps the most amazing story of a mammoth find happened in 2007. A one-month-old female woolly mammoth was discovered in northwestern Siberia. A Nenets reindeer herder and his sons came across what’s been dubbed, the “best preserved mammoth” found so far. Scientists spent a 3-day marathon examining the remains (5).
The plan for cloning the woolly mammoth is to take a “perfect cell” from the extinct animal and lace the DNA into an elephant egg. It sounds easy enough, but Motherboard interviewed professor and biologist Kevin Campbell (University of Manitoba in Canada), who doesn’t believe technology is advanced enough for a successful clone (6).
Campbell believes the DNA is too fragile to take and if it were to bond in the elephant egg, it still wouldn’t be a true clone. If all works as proposed, at best, it would be a mix of elephant and woolly mammoth – a hybrid.
Harvard Geneticist Copies Woolly Mammoth Genes
In March 2015, Popular Science reported that Harvard University Geneticist George Church’s lab had “successfully copied genes from frozen woolly mammoths and pasted them into the genome of an Asian elephant” (7).
These and other researchers working on the woolly mammoth DNA use the CRISPR, a gene editing tool (8). The Harvard team successfully spliced the genes from the “mammoth’s small ear, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and color into those of the elephant’s DNA for skin cells.”
According to Popular Science, this was the first time woolly mammoth genes were “functional” since the species became extinct.
The research being done using woolly mammoth DNA is part of a process known as “de-extinction.” The goal is to “bring extinct species back from the dead.”
Scientists warn that a cloned woolly mammoth is far from becoming a reality. These are major steps in what most researchers explain is a long process, requiring more research. Splicing genes doesn’t mean a clone is possible – yet.
The scientists explain that they’ve yet to discover how to “take the flat hybrid cells from a petri dish and coax them into becoming specialized tissues – such as blood cells or liver organoids – then test to see if they behave properly.” Will these hybrid cells create a woolly mammoth the way it’s supposed to look, such as hair length, color, size and so on?
The next step once that’s accomplished is to create an elephant/mammoth hybrid. But, these embryos will be “grown in artificial wombs, devices…” Most scientists and certainly animal rights activists believe implanting hybrid embryos in elephants is inhumane. The most logical way to grow clones is with artificial wombs. This type of device will give scientists greater control and access to the growing woolly mammoth embryos.
Woolly Mammoths Grazing in Siberia
While it may be some time before woolly mammoth herds are a reality, other clones are being successfully created, such as the dog clones Sooam Biotech has created.
In fact, Sooam contributed two cloned dogs to National 119 Rescue Service (9). The dogs were trained for 2 years by handlers to serve as rescue dogs.
If scientists are able to successfully clone extinct species, the question that remains is: Should they be restored?
Would the clones become part of zoo collections or dedicated habitats?
Would it be safe and logical to reintroduce the formally extinct animal(s) to the animal kingdom? How would extinct animals affect the current eco-balance?
These and more questions need to be answered before extinct animals are created.
References & Image Credits:
(3) National Geographic
(4) Mammoth Back from the Dead Trailer
(5) NG: Mammoths
(6) Cloning a Mammoth Is Only the Start
(7) Pop Sci
(8) TSW: The Ethical Divide of Embryo Editing
(10) Wikipedia: Mammoth Images