Cloning the Mammoth: It’s Big!

Will mammoths once again walk the earth? Photo - Flickr: Tracy O

Personally, when anyone talks about mammoths, which isn’t actually very often, I immediately think of Manny, the grumpy, but loveable, mammoth from Ice Age. However, Manny may soon be the second most well known mammoth around. Last month the headline: “Mammoth ‘could be reborn in four years’” was published in the British newspaper The Telegraph. Akira Iritani, a professor at Kyoto University, believes that we now have the technology to resurrect the giant mammal, and he wants to make it happen.

Until recently, cloning from frozen specimens was thought to be impossible. Ice crystals formed in the cell during freezing cause extensive damage, rendering cells unviable. However, in 2008, Dr. Teruhiko Wakayama and his team successfully cloned a mouse using mice that had been frozen for sixteen years. The trick was that they didn’t use whole cells, instead they searched for intact nuclei that hadn’t been damaged during freezing. The intact nuclei were inserted into mouse cells, from which the DNA had been removed, and implanted into a surrogate mother.

Cloning the mammoth could require as little as a few grams of soft-tissue from a frozen mammoth. Iritani plans to look for a specimen in the permafrost of Siberia this summer. After finding the tissue and isolating the viable nuclei, researchers will insert the nuclei into the egg of an African elephant and she will act as the surrogate mother for a gestation period of close to 600 days.

Cloning the mammoth would be an amazing scientific breakthrough, but this kind of science raises many concerns and I can’t help but wonder: Why we’re doing it?

In 2008, in the Guardian, Bill Holt, head of reproductive biology at the Zoological Society of London, raised the following concern: “You have to think about why you would do it and where you would put it”. Planet earth has changed drastically since the mammoth disappeared at the end of the last ice age. So I have to ask: Where will the new mammoth live? Will we clone more than one? Will they reproduce? If so, they will have a very small gene pool.

Given the limited number of viable nuclei, it seems unlikely to me that we will be able to bring the mammoth back for good. Even if we did, they would never be able to live free in the wild. So, as incredible as it would be to see a live wooly mammoth face to face, it seems counterproductive to bring back the mammoth when many other species on earth are also facing extinction. Why not spend our energy saving species that are still here, rather than trying to bring them back once their gone?

One response to “Cloning the Mammoth: It’s Big!

  1. Wow, that’s fascinating; I had no idea science was so far along in cloning mammals! I totally agree with your thoughts that although cloning a mammoth would be super cool to see, there isn’t really a point. They can’t seriously think that such a huge species would fit well into the ecosystem as a viable link in the food chain. Unless they plan to just clone a couple individuals and keep them in zoos or labs to study, the reintroduction of a long extinct species into our ecosystem seems absurd. I’m sure there are some other applications to this new scientific technology, but it would be really cool to see a mammoth alive and well.