How Close Are We to Cloning a Mammoth?
Doo da DOO doo doo, doo da DOO doo doo, doo da doo-oo doo doo doooooooooo…
If you’re like me, you can’t see that onomatopoeia without flashing back to the iconic John Williams riff. Of course, if you’re like me, you also own a full-sized body pillow of Richard Attenborough. In other words, you really like Stephen Spielberg’s classic 1993 film Jurassic Park.
And well you should! Jurassic Park is an excellent movie, a breakthrough in visual effects , and just a plain old neat idea. Humans have existed for only a fleeting moment of our planet’s history, which means that we completely missed 99.9% of all the cool animals that have ever existed. We missed the T-Rex, the 52-foot shark, and the two-story-tall carnivorous sloth.
The idea of bringing back those lost monsters is compelling, and Jurassic Park proposes a pretty plausible-sounding way of doing it. In the film, researchers bring back extinct dinosaurs by extracting their DNA from the guts of insects preserved in amber, and using that DNA to clone dinosaurs.
In the case of dinosaurs, unfortunately, the unforgiving hand of time has ruined our chances. DNA is continuously being cut to bits by exposure to cosmic radiation. Under ideal conditions, it can last for a few million years — however, T-Rex lived more than fifty million years ago. Thanks to DNA decay, there just isn’t enough genome left to even attempt a crime against nature.
That’s not to say that we couldn’t resurrect other extinct creatures.
Woolly mammoths were alive four thousand years ago, and lived in cold climates that tend to freeze soft tissue. As a result, we have a LOT of intact mammoth mummies, which means access to pristine DNA. Because of this, a growing number of researchers think that bringing back a woolly mammoth is somewhere between plausible and inevitable.
But how close are we?
A Mammoth Undertaking
One researcher working on the problem is Hwang Woo-Suk, a controversial Korean geneticist who is in Siberia sampling the DNA of ancient mammoth corpses. Woo-Suk is hoping to pursue a traditional route to mammoth cloning, by discovering cells in well-preserved cadavers which contain a complete and intact copy of the mammoth genome, which can be inserted into an elephant egg to create a clone of a specific mammoth. This is like the approach outlined in Jurassic Park, and the one that’s already been used to produce clones like Dolly the sheep.
Many of Woo-Suk’s peers are skeptical of the prospect: the mammoth DNA that has been recovered has been shattered into chunks that are, on average, a few hundred base pairs long. Furthermore, they’re contaminated with the genomes of the mammoth mitochondria, the bacteria that were in it when it died, and any flecks of organic matter that might have happened to be in the sample.
It is possible to reconstruct a mammoth genome out of this genetic soup, but it’s difficult. It’s like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with seventeen million pieces and no corners. However, scientists are getting close to putting it all together, using bioinformatics techniques — using a computer to solve the problem for them.
The genome they extracted isn’t complete — it’s missing repetitive sections that are hard to piece back together, and any chunks of DNA that didn’t happen to survive. You couldn’t reconstruct it into a full creature by itself, but you could compare it to DNA of a modern Asian elephant (the closest living relative of the woolly mammoth), and use those differences to construct a hybrid pachyderm — using the genome of an African elephant to fill in the gaps in the mammoth DNA. This is similar to how frog DNA was infamously used to patch the holes in the dinosaur genome in Jurassic Park.
This sounds like science fiction, but it’s already happening, and not for the reasons you might think. Harvard researchers have successfully spliced a handful of mammoth genes into cultured elephant cells using CRISPR, a new technology that allows custom DNA to be edited into the genome at specific locations, offering geneticists a much finer degree of control. The genes that were inserted code for cold-resistance. An elephant cloned from the hybrid genome would be more able to survive harsh winters, allowing them to survive farther north.
The researchers hope that this will allow the Asian elephant to migrate from its shrinking ancestral habitat, and help save the species from extinction. It’s also a step towards cloning a reconstructed mammoth — although inserting a dozen genes into a few cells is a far cry from the real thing.
Ethics & Complications
Many have raised concerns about the prospect of cloning a mammoth, and some of them are worth discussing. I will do you the respect of ignoring the usual complaints that researchers are “playing god” or “meddling in things man was not meant to know”. If we’d listened to those people, we’d be dying of parasites on the savanna right now.
Obviously we should clone a mammoth, if we can do so responsibly. Cloning a mammoth is awesome, and the project will advance a number of critical fields — the research done will have applications in medicine and biological research . There are, however, some real concerns.
The most substantive complaint is that Asian elephants are endangered (there are about 40,000 left under the world), and cloning is far from an exact science. It’s going to take a number of tries to produce a viable mammoth fetus, even after the basic science is resolved. Occupying an elephant womb for years trying to clone a mammoth may be irresponsible, given that that womb could be used to help repopulate the dwindling species.
You could argue, perhaps, that the situation of the mammoth (extinct) is even more dire than that of the elephant, but that idea doesn’t hold very much water. The thing about being dead is that it’s not very time-sensitive. The mammoth genome is just data, and can wait indefinitely to return. It’s wise to try to get the elephant population stabilized before we start on a mammoth cloning project.
With that said, the technology to do pull off the mammoth hat trick is advancing, quickly. In a decade or two, the challenge may be easy enough that someone won’t be able to resist, ethics or no ethics. I can’t claim I wouldn’t be excited by the news.
What do you think? Should we bring back the woolly mammoth? Would you pay money to visit a nature preserve full of these ancient giants? The discussion starts in the comments.