The key to cloning a woolly mammoth may be locked into the Siberian permafrost.
At least, that’s what scientists in the blustery Russian tundra are hoping. An international team from Russia’s North-Eastern Federal University recently found well-preserved remains, including some fur and bone marrow, during a paleontological research trip in the northeastern province of Yakutia.
Russian newspaper Vzglyad talked to expedition leader Semyon Grigoriev, a North-Eastern Federal University professor, who said that the remains may still contain living cells, which would be vital to any cloning attempt. Previously-found clumps of woolly mammoth hair have allowed scientists to determine much of the extinct species’ genetic code, but have fielded no living cells.
Living cells are necessary for the Frankenstein-esque procedure that would produce a baby mammoth, according to Chris Norris, senior collection manager for vertebrate paleontology at Yale’s Peabody Museum. Only living cells contain an intact nucleus, complete with woolly mammoth DNA. Such a nucleus can be inserted into a elephant embryo — a technique pioneered by a group of Japanese researchers last year — and then coaxed into becoming a real, live mammoth clone.
While it may take months to figure out what kind and quality of samples they can glean from the mammoth remains, Grigoriev told Reuters that it chances of finding living cells are pretty remote — but not impossible. Sub-zero temperatures are crucial for slowing the deterioration of living cells, and Siberia, with its year-round permafrost, is one of the best places to look for surviving mammoth cells.
Despite the warnings of Jurassic Park — that playing in God’s domain can quickly lead to large, sharp-toothed carnivores praying on unsuspecting amusement-park employees — scientists have recently been willing to entertain the possibility of bringing extinct species back to life. In 2010, European scientists futilely attempted to back-breed an extinct species of cattle.
But until scientists find living cells from a long-dead creature, or make a breakthrough that would allow them to clone up animals from a different kind of genetic material, we’ll have to get our woolly mammoth fix from Ray Romano in Ice Age. But hope springs eternal: just last week, prehistorians got excited about a mammoth tooth found by a San Francisco crane operator while excavating ground for the city’s new Central Station. Maybe all it will take is just the right discovery.