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Return of the mammoth? Dolly scientist says beast should be cloned

  • Woolly Mammoth

    An artist's illustration depicts a herd of woolly mammoths.Mauricio Anton/PLoS

  • mammoth-blood.jpg

    A researcher holding a test tube with what the scientists called a sample of well-preserved blood they found in a carcass of a female mammoth discovered on a remote island in the Arctic Ocean.AFP / Northeastern Federal University

  • mammoth-blood 2.jpg

    A researcher working near a carcass of a female mammoth found on a remote island in the Arctic Ocean.AFP / Northeastern Federal University

The astonishingly well-preserved blood from a 10,000-year-old  frozen mammoth could lead to mammoth stem cells, said Ian Wilmut, the scientist responsible for Dolly, the world’s first cloned animal -- and might ultimately lead to a cloned mammoth.

There are several hurdles to such a venture, of course, and it may ultimately prove unsuccessful.

But Wilmut’s weight lends credibility to the growing possibility of bringing back the mammoth -- the “de-extinction” of a long-lost species.

'If there are reasonable prospects of them being healthy, we should do it.'

- Ian Wilmut, emeritus professor at the MRC Center for Regenerative Medicine at University of Edinburgh

"I think it should be done as long as we can provide great care for the animal,” Wilmut told The Guardian. “If there are reasonable prospects of them being healthy, we should do it. We can learn a lot about them," he said.

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In an essay on The Conversation, Wilmut spelled out the two main methods for turning an ancient pile of mammoth bones and blood into a living, breathing creature. The two he focused on were the use of elephant eggs to grow an embryo -- similar to the process that led to Dolly -- and the creation of embryonic mammoth stem cells.

“Stem cells of this type can also be induced to form gametes. If the cells were from a female, this might provide an alternative source of eggs for use in research, and perhaps in breeding, including the cloning of mammoths,” Wilmut wrote.

Wilmut, emeritus professor at the MRC Center for Regenerative Medicine at University of Edinburgh, made headlines in 1996 when he and his colleagues cloned Dolly the sheep. Their technique involved injecting DNA into a special egg cell and transferring the product into a third sheep, which carried the egg to term. While Dolly lived a brief life, dying in 2003, her very existence was hailed as a medical marvel.

That such a noted scientist could even discuss the process of bringing back the mammoth stems from an astonishing find on a remote Russian island in the Arctic Ocean: blood so well preserved that it flowed freely from a 10,000- to 15,000-year-old creature.

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“The fragments of muscle tissues, which we’ve found out of the body, have a natural red color of fresh meat. The reason for such preservation is that the lower part of the body was underlying in pure ice, and the upper part was found in the middle of tundra,” said Semyon Grigoriev, the head of the expedition and chairman of the Mammoth Museum, after announcing the discovery.

Wooly mammoths are thought to have died out around 10,000 years ago, although scientists think small groups of them lived longer in Alaska and on Russia's Wrangel Island off the Siberian coast.

A growing chorus of scientists have been targeting the mammoth for so called “de-extinction” in recent years, at the same time that others argue against tampering with Mother Nature’s plans. Bringing back a dead species raises a host of issues, wrote two ethicists recently.

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"The critical ethical issue in re-creating extinct species, or in creating new kinds of animals, is to first determine through careful scientific study what is in their interests and to ensure that they live good lives in the world in which they are create," wrote Julian Savulescu, who studies ethics at Monash University, and Russell Powell, a philosophy professor at Boston University.

"If we are confident that a cognitively sophisticated organism, such as a mammoth, would lead a good life, this may provide moral reasons to create it — whether or not that animal is a clone of a member of an extinct lineage."