Home > Science and Technology, Weekend Feature, Weird and Interesting > Woolly mammoth clones, fur coats one step closer

Woolly mammoth clones, fur coats one step closer

Woolly Mammoth

There’s a bounty out there for the first scientists to successfully bring an extinct species back to life. It’s called the Jurassic Park X Prize, and a team of South Korean and Russian scientists may finally have all the ingredients they need to take a shot at dino-loot.

If you’ve read the headlines for the last decade, maybe you’ve asked yourself, “Why bother with a mammoth? Why not clone something we made extinct?” Or, if you’re like me, you’re asking, “Where’s my Jurassic Park? I can’t stand watching Jeff Goldblum waste away on Law & Order. Let’s get him back in the game!”

Jeff Goldblum Chaos Theory

“Let me tell you about chaos theory.”

The woolly mammoth is the best bet for cloning something that has been extinct for thousands of years. DNA is the real issue; finding full strands of ancient DNA is nearly impossible, since the stuff falls apart after about 500 years.

That’s bad news for anyone banking on the old mosquito in amber Jurassic Park trick. Under ideal conditions, DNA is completely destroyed after 6.8 million years. The oldest known sample is half a million years old, and that’s just an intact DNA sequence from a bird bone; in order to clone something, scientists need living cells. They also need a surrogate animal to grow the cells, and it has to be an animal similar enough to the clone that the combination will work.

An elephant makes love to a pig

This combination will not work.

The mammoth is the only animal that might provide scientists with everything needed to make a prehistoric animal clone. It lived in subzero temperatures in northern Russia. When it died, it often died out in the cold. Many mammoth corpses were absorbed by the tundra, flash-frozen and sealed away for thousands of years in pristine condition. Unlike the dead dino bones, the mammoth stands a chance of offering a fully preserved, living tissue sample for scientists to work with. On top of that, the mammoth has a modern day cousin in the elephant, making the search for a surrogate mother a short one.

Elephant and Baby

“Mom, I’m getting hair in funny places…”

The science of it works like this: take an egg from an Indian elephant’s womb and remove the nucleus. Think of it like removing the yolk from a chicken’s egg. Now you’re left with an empty egg. Next, take a cell from the woolly mammoth and bond it with the empty egg, more or less replacing the old yolk. Give it some Petri dish love, a little time, let it start to grow and then put the embryo in the surrogate mother. Scientists have done it successfully with mice, goats, dogs – just about everything you’d find on the farm. Nature combines half the genetic info of the mother with half the info from the father; cloning nullifies the mother’s contribution and lets the injected cell use 100% of its own genetic map.

Scientists have been combing northern Russia for a long time in search of a dead mammoth with some living, frozen tissue that can survive the thawing process. In September, they finally found one: a frozen baby mammoth, with just the tissue sample they need to start making some really hairy babies.

Baby Woolly Mammoth Mummy

“Are you my mummy?”

The baby mammoth was found near Yakutsk in northeastern Russia, where Russian scientists have been coordinating with South Korean scientists to make the cloning happen. It’s also where the woolly mammoth lived when it was alive and, perhaps, where it will live again. But what are the consequences of bringing an extinct creature back to life?
When a new species is introduced to an ecosystem, it can be tough to see all the effects it will have. Just ask Australians about the cane toad, which was introduced there for pest control. The cane toad population exploded shortly after its introduction, and it ate everything it could reach on the continent. But the mammoth, unlike the cane toad or, let’s say, the velociraptor, doesn’t pose much threat to humans or the ecosystem. They’re simply too large for their population to get out of hand. TThe hairy creatures would stick to their Siberian homeland, and for the Russians who live there, it wouldn’t be hard to see them coming. And, if our ancestors truly did help hunt them to extinction, they probably taste pretty good, too.

The chances of turning a herd of woolly mammoths into a tourist attraction are pretty slim. Granted, seeing a prehistoric beast twice the size of an elephant would have some appeal, but Yakutsk, Russia is famous for two things: having a territory on the Risk board game, and being the coldest city on earth.

Mail Order Russian Bride

Also, Yakutsk has brides looking for American love.

Bringing back an extinct species would be a tremendous scientific achievement, but the implications and impact go beyond what any one person can fully account for. Is it playing God to resurrect an extinct species? What will we do with the mammoths if we can produce a sustainable population? Will mammoth fur become a fashion statement? Can I finish this article without a Ray Romano reference?

Manny from Ice Age

Absolutely not.

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