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The Return of the Woolly Mammoth

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For years, Jurassic Park was just a science fiction adventure film based on a novel of the same name. The film featured a park populated with dinosaurs cloned from DNA extracted from insects preserved in prehistoric amber. Now, with the advances in DNA technology, can Jurassic Park become a reality?

Scientists claim that the dream of resurrecting extinct animals, the likes of the woolly mammoth, may very likely come true in a few years. Even though these giant beasts have been extinct for millennia, dozens of their carcasses, preserved in the frozen Arctic wilderness, have been found in an extremely good condition. Scientists have used these remains to discover much about how these animals lived and died; they also discovered the sequence of their genome. Can they also use these remains to bring the beast back to life? Will the woolly mammoth walk the Earth again?

Tens of thousands of years ago, back when the world was being overrun by glaciers during the last ice age known to mankind; woolly mammoths roamed the Earth freely, walking their way through the tundra’s of Asia, Europe, and North America. With their huge elephant-like body, their thick coat of dark dense fur, and their long curved tusks, these ice age mammals must have been a daunting sight to humans who hunted them regularly for their meat and bones.

Armed with new reproductive biology and genome engineering technologies, a group of scientists from Japan, Russia, and South Korea announced their plans to clone a woolly mammoth from its frozen cells.

Unlike dinosaurs, which disappeared around 65 million years ago, and whose remains exist only as fossils, mammoth remains may still retain usable tissue samples. Nevertheless, finding well-preserved tissue with an undamaged gene has proven to be a real challenge, which is why attempts to clone the mammoth have frequently failed in the past.

One of the expeditions in Siberian permafrost has uncovered well-preserved remains of several woolly mammoths, including fur, and bone marrow, with high chances of containing the cells needed for the cloning procedure to be successful.

So how exactly does one go about cloning a woolly mammoth? Since the elephant is the closest modern relative of the mammoth, the scientists plan to replace the nuclei of elephant egg cells with those of mammoth, producing embryos with mammoth DNA. Those embryos will then be planted into the wombs of elephants, hoping that they will eventually give birth to baby mammoths.

Even as the scientists admit that the scale of the mammoth cloning project is elephantine and the risks yet unknown, they are convinced that soon, if all goes according to plan, a live mammoth will once again roam the Earth.

The fact that something is achievable does not always mean that we should attempt to achieve it since the risks of cloning a mammoth or any other extinct animal may outweigh its benefits. Aside from the controversy of performing a Frankenstein-type procedure that may be considered as tampering with Mother Nature, there is the question of the possibility of contamination of the frozen remains of such extinct species, which could expose us to infectious diseases not seen since the animals became extinct.

On the other hand, it is only fair to point out that the production of a successful mammoth clone could open the door to recreating other extinct animals, and more importantly saving other endangered species from dying out, thus maintaining Earth’s biodiversity and ecological balance.


*The original article is published in the PSC Newsletter, Technology and Us (Spring 2013) issue.


Recent Updates 

In March 2019, scientists just came closer than ever to cloning a woolly mammoth. A team of scientists from Japan and Russia announced that cells recovered from a 28,000-year-old mammoth have shown signs of life.

Although scientists do not expect from us to witness the prehistoric beasts roaming around us soon, they hope that this technology could be used in preventing species that are about to extinct today from disappearing forever.

References
blogs.discovermagazine.com
dw.com
genetics.thetech.org
news.nationalgeographic.com
newsfeed.time.com
pnas.org
reuters.com

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