Coming Soon, to a Lab Near You: Cloning the Woolly Mammoth
Bringing the Mammoth Back to Life
The Jouney of Lyuba
Approximately 10,000 years ago, a one month old baby mammoth died in a mud pit along the banks of a river in Russia's Yamal Peninsula. This minor event in history would have been entirely missed by modern humans, if not for the discovery by a Nenet reindeer herder. In 2007, Yuri Khudi noticed the infant woolly mammoth protruding from the eroding riverbank, and produced the most important paleontological discovery of the year.
The infant mammoth, dubbed Lyuba after Khudi's wife, was nearly perfectly preserved. Her carcass was completely intact, containing soft tissue - and a lot of DNA.
Dr. Beth Shapiro on Mammoth Cloning
New Technology Allows Cloning from Frozen Tissue
The ability to clone mammals was developed in the late 1990s, but the efficiency was less than 5% due to problems like nuclear damage or cells which were simply not "cloning-competent." The efficiency rates have increased to approximately 30% over time. In 2008, a man by the name of Teruhiko Wakayama developed a technique to clone mammals from frozen soft tissue. This is a pivotal development, at least as it pertains to the possibilities of cloning woolly mammoths.
At Kyoto University in Japan, Dr. Akira Iritani is planning to bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction. With the help of Professor Minoru Miyashita, the timeline has already been set: within 4-5 years, pending technical difficulties, a baby mammoth will be born.
This will be accomplished by obtaining a 1-inch square piece of soft tissue from little Lubya, then extracting the cell nuclei from the tissue. The mammoth genetic material will be inserted into an African elephant egg (which has been stripped of elephant DNA), then placed into a female elephant for the duration of the pregnancy. The surrogate elephant mother will then give birth to the mammoth baby, which would be a genetic clone of Lubya.
Kinki University in Japan has also announced that it will begin a Mammoth cloning project using bone marrow harvested from frozen mammoths found in Russia. The cloning project will be joined by Russian scientist Semyon Grigoriev, who has been studying the frozen mammoth marrow. A successful cloning attempt is expected within the next five years, or by the year 2017.
Seeking fame and headlines, the controversial scientist Hwang Woo-suk of South Korea has also started a woolly mammoth cloning project: his financier is interested in eventually cloning dinosaurs. Hwang's background is marred, however, by his false claims of creating a human embryonic stem cell. In 2004, Hwang claimed to have created a cloned human embryo as a source of stem cells - the data was fraudulent and Hwang used more than 2,000 human eggs (gained through illicit means) in his study at Seoul University. Hwang is attempting a return to respectability; he created the world's first cloned coyote in October 2011.
Woolly Mammoth Cloning Project on the Today Show
Cloning: Technical Difficulties
There are many technical difficulties which may forestall the project. First, Dr. Iritani must convince Russia to give him a sample of Lubya's soft tissue. Then, healthy genetic material must be transferred to the prepared elephant egg, an elephant must be impregnated, and normal fetal development must occur: with current efficiency rates of 30%, there is a greater chance the attempt will fail than succeed.
An extinct animal has already been successfully cloned. In 2000, the Pyrenean ibex was declared extinct when the last known member of its species was found dead. Scientists saved a piece of tissue, and in 2009 managed to produce a a living clone. Unfortunately, the clone died within minutes of birth due to breathing difficulties, underscoring one of many technical problems which scientists encounter in the cloning process.
Comparing Mammoths to Elephants
Woolly Mammoth (Bull)
Bull African Elephant
9.2-13.1 feet (2.8-4.0 m)
10-13 feet (3.2-4.0 m)
Shaggy hair, up to 3 feet in length
Sparse hair, primarily on the tail and mouth
16 feet long
5-8 feet long
12 inches long
71 inches long
Mammoth Cloning: A Poll
Should we attempt to bring back the woolly mammoth?
Ethics of Cloning a Woolly Mammoth
The purpose of cloning a woolly mammoth is to study its ecology and genes, largely to discover why the animals went extinct 8,000 years ago. Current theories of extinction range from humans hunting the creatures to death to increasing planetary temperatures.
Many ethical problems remain: if a woolly mammoth is born, should it be displayed to the public? Could it be bred? Will humans be able to properly care for a mammoth as it matures? The current record for zoos keeping elephants is rather abysmal. In addition, cloned animals are generally not as healthy as the original progenitor: cloned mice have a host of problems including illness and liver failure, among others. The famous cloned sheep Dolly died at the tender age of six, due to a progressive lung disease: a disease typically seen among much older sheep.
Due to these difficulties, don't expect to see a herd of mammoths at the local zoo: producing even one mammoth with cloning technology will be a miracle of modern science.
A Mammoth Cloning Project in Japan.
Kinki University in Japan, where a Mammoth cloning experiment is taking place.