Bringing Back the Mammoth: Extinction May Only Be Temporary - Technology and Science Week


The Woolly Mammoth at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria, British Columbia. Photo by Tracy Olson.

Every child that grew up in the ’90s was introduced to the concept of cloning dinosaurs. The idea was so exciting it made their imaginations wet their pants. Blame it on Michael Crichton and Steven Spielberg. With the release of Jurassic Park, all the little kids who were old enough to convince their parents to take them to a PG-13 movie had their minds blown by prehistoric beasts running wild in front of them on the big screen. Speaking on behalf of this generation, all of those kids have not yet lost hope that this could become a reality. Unfortunately, scientists are nowhere near having the means to recreate dinosaurs. The millions of years since the last of the breed roamed the earth have rendered all DNA they left behind incomplete. Splicing the strands with frog DNA (just as the geniuses in JP did) is not possible.

Fast-forward about 64,990,000 years to the time when our planet was under a worldwide ice age. Woolly mammoths were roaming through most of North America and Eurasia, enjoying the beautifully chilled air and glaciers that were carving the landscapes we know today. Some of these creatures froze solid inside the ice covering the planet, creating a natural cryogenically frozen chamber that was so effective it would have made Walt Disney jealous. Throughout the years, preserved mammoths have been found trapped inside large blocks of ice in areas of the world where temperatures haven’t changed much since the ice age.

And there you have it, mammoth DNA!

Taking DNA from the mammoth remains sounds easy enough but, needless to say, there is a lot more to it than that. However, that hasn’t stopped the entrepreneurial masterminds of the world, like John Hammond, from getting their panties in a twist at the potential opening of Pleistocene Park (even though we all know it doesn’t have as good of a ring to it as JP).

Since the first mammoth was discovered, scientists have found traces of DNA laying in the nuclei but not enough to create an actual clone. With today’s technology, a clone cannot be conducted unless 100% of the strand is complete. Most of the strands discovered were damaged from the centuries laying idle, thus leaving us with the same pipe dreams as we have with dinosaurs.

With the ongoing search for the perfect nucleus that holds an intact strand of DNA, a recent mammoth discovery in the permafrost of Russia may hold the answer everyone has been waiting for.

Don’t let Al Gore fool you; global warming does have its upsides. The rising temperatures across the planet have started thawing some areas in eastern Russia that are normally permanently frozen, resulting in the discovery of numerous mammoths. One of the discovered animals had nuclei in its thigh that have the potential to create a clone.

Things moved fast after the discovery of this strand and in March 2012, South Korean and Russian scientists announced they will be teaming up in an attempt to make the clone a reality. Lead by cloning expert, Hwang Woo-suk, the team plans to take the egg cells of an elephant and replace their nuclei with that of a mammoth. The elephant will then become a surrogate mother to its hairy cousin.

Of course, the task will be easier said than done. Only time will tell if they can pull it off, and Woo-suk isn’t immune to controversy. He lost his credibility in the mid 2000s when it came to light that he fabricated some alleged findings in regards to his research on human stem cell cloning. However, years later, Woo-suk did successfully clone several endangered coyotes. If his ego does not fail him in his current endeavor, the world may learn plenty from the studies he is undertaking.

In reference to the cloning of dinosaurs, Dr. Malcolm said, “What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”

This may also be relevant in regards to the woolly mammoth. Luckily, this species isn’t a 20 foot carnivorous beast that can swallow a human whole. Regardless, the consequences of bringing back a species that was scratched off the earth through natural selection is yet to be known. But who cares? We are all lying if we said that seeing a live woolly mammoth would be the most badass thing that could ever come to reality from our dreams spawned from childhood.