Cloning the Woolly Mammoth: New Venture Has "Reasonable Chance" of Victory

By Andrew Moseman | January 18, 2011 11:08 am

The Internet has been burning up with an ice age storyline over the past few days: Researchers in Japan led by Akira Iritani announced their plan to clone  a woolly mammoth within four to six years, recreating a colossal beast not seen on Earth in thousands of years. But as enthusiastic as DISCOVER is for cloned mammoths (and believe us, we’re psyched), the project is still a long way from success.

First, the backstory.

Researchers from Kinki University’s Graduate School of Biology-Oriented Science and Technology began the study in 1997. On three occasions, the team obtained mammoth skin and muscle tissue excavated in good condition from the permafrost in Siberia. However, most nuclei in the cells were damaged by ice crystals and were unusable. The plan to clone a mammoth was abandoned. [Daily Yamiuri]

That initial effort was a DISCOVER cover story back in 1999. Now, though, the dream is back, thanks to newly developed methods to get around that icy problem.

The team, which has invited a Russian mammoth researcher and two US elephant experts to join the project, has established a technique to extract DNA from frozen cells, previously an obstacle to cloning attempts because of the damage cells sustained in the freezing process. Another Japanese researcher, Teruhiko Wakayama of the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology, succeeded in 2008 in cloning a mouse from the cells of another that had been kept in temperatures similar to frozen ground for 16 years. [AFP]

Here’s the plan: This summer, the Japanese researchers plan to visit a Russian lab where mammoth remains discovered in Siberia have been preserved, though the scientists estimate that just 2 to 3 percent of the preserved cells will be viable for this experiment. They must then use Wakayama’s method, extracting nuclei from those viable mammoth cells and then attempting to place them inside egg cells of the African elephant that have been stripped of their own nuclei (the eggs were donated by zoos when their females elephants died). If Iritani and colleagues succeed that far, then they must implant the embryo into a living African elephant so it could grow during the elephant’s 600-day gestation period to be born (hopefully) as a live mammoth.

Simple, right? Iritani says that there’s a “reasonable chance” of success for the plan to clone a live mammoth within the four to six year window, but that might depend upon how one defines “reasonable.” The technological advances by Wakayama and others have succeeded in mice and upped the success rate for cattle to 30 percent, Iritani says. But cattle also haven’t been extinct for millennia.

Still, we’ve already seen some of the curious results of transplanting different genetic material into an egg, and Iritani and colleagues certainly have a chance.

The good news (I think) is that even if Iritani and his scientists manage to clone a mammoth that then grows to be 13 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 8,000 pounds, it’ll still be smaller than an adult male African elephant (which can grow to be about 13 feet at the shoulder and weigh up to 13,000 pounds). [PC World]

Trying to clone a mammoth may not carry the ethical implications of resurrecting, say, a Neanderthal. But that doesn’t mean the team has its endgame all worked out.

“If a cloned embryo can be created, we need to discuss, before transplanting it into the womb, how to breed [the mammoth] and whether to display it to the public,” Iritani told Yomiuri. “After the mammoth is born, we’ll examine its ecology and genes to study why the species became extinct and other factors.” [CNN]

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Cloning the Woolly Mammoth
80beats: Scientist Smackdown: No Proof That a Comet Killed the Mammoths?
80beats: Spores in Mastodon Dung Suggest Humans Didn’t Kill Off Ancient Mammals
80beats: The Last Mammoths Made a Round Trip Across the Bering Land Bridge
80beats: Mice Two Dads: Scientists Create Mice With Two Genetic Fathers

Image: Wikimedia Commons

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Top Posts
  • scott

    I think its cool. Might have to do/learn this anyway to repopulate/restore species that we realize and ecosytem needs after they die off because of human induced pollution and/or habitat loss.

  • Josiah

    I’ve seen this movie before. As I recall, it did not end well for the humans involved.

  • casq

    Of that estimated chance of it not succeeding, I wonder what part of that comes from the frozen DNA and what part of that comes from the complication of growing a mammoth in an elephant womb. I don’t know how genetically close elephants are to mammoths, but that seems like a tough task alone.

  • megan

    It is only being done for the COOL factor. The ecology that mammoths lived in DOES NOT EXIST NOW and even now POLAR BEARS are going extinct. This is man’s ego in love with his cleverness in science than actual scientific needs or uses researched or planned in accordance to our surroundings. I’m not hearing a woman biologist thinking neato lets recreate something extinct and not around for eons but hey it’d be cool. Even elephants are going extinct because humans cannot curb our population growth and rapacious greed and need for resources so why purposely create an extinct creature to just suffer and die again for our pleasure and curiosity? It’s sick.

  • Dean

    And man enter into Eden.

    They came by kyak, ikyak, canoe, and when they entered onto the new shore there were great beasts in greater abundance.

    And the beasts had no knowledge of men.

    The beasts ran from the saber toothed cat, but not from man. For they had never seen a man. And man, with a knife, a spear, a club, a simple stone, killed and ate. And whenever the men grew hungry, they killed and ate and fed themselves very well .

    They spend upon the face of the Americas at a great rate, covered the land with men and ate what they killed. And killed them all the animals that had no fear of man. Even the great cats were left with nothing to eat and so they too died.

    The ‘conundrums’ of the population explosion, the demise of the large herbivores and carnivores is not really so difficult to imagine. The Mammoth and the Sloth simply did not run away. After all, how could so small and naked a thing threaten them.

    The fossil record supports this amply.


  • John Lerch

    Dean–THERE WERE WOOLY MAMMOTHS IN SIBERIA. Kayaks and a “new shore” are irrelevant!

  • Sunny Molini

    Yes, it’s cool. Yes, there’s limited and diminishing natural habitat. But other facts are also relevent.

    Humanity shows no signs of slowing it’s growth. Which implies that more species will go extinct in the near future.

    Cloning technology has developed to the point where we might be able to un-extinct some of these species.

    Exploration into space may one day yield new habitats that earth flora and fauna can thrive in. If that happens, and we have the ability to restore the species we destroyed, how can one argue that it wouldn’t be good to rebuild the rich and vibrant biodiversity that we are losing here?
    The cloning of this mammoth is a step in proving technology that can preserve the evolutionary history of our universe for all time. Perfection of cloning technology isn’t about solving the problem of ‘too few mammoths’ at the zoo, it’s about creating options to preserve biodiversity.

  • jc

    I think it’s cool, but my daughter is hysterical. Nine years ago, my then-twelve year old daughter was told by a Gypsie fortune teller, “You will die in the great mammoth migration”! We laughed it off, and over the years have joked about it when seeing shows about the frozen baby mammoths… now she’s truely upset. And my only consolation to her, is that it’ll take quite a while to breed enough mammoths to call it a “great migration”.

  • James Lee

    Can we do this? We can. Should we? Hell no.

  • quarksparrow

    @James Lee: Why the hell not? I can’t think of a single reason why we shouldn’t, since someone’s already willing to fork out the time and the money. Or is your comment the usual tut-tutting about playing god? Cloning is nothing new.

    I’m curious if the researchers intend to clone elephants before attempting mammoths. Different species pose their own challenges … have elephants been cloned before?


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