Pleistocene Park

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Ever since Jurassic Park, the idea of cloning long extinct critters has captured the public imagination. Resurrecting T. Rex remains in the realm of fantasy, but what about Pleistocene megafauna that disappeared in the last 20,000 to 10,000 years?

Last week researchers announced the discovery of a 6-month old frozen baby female mammoth in Siberia. The discovery prompts the New York Times to speculate:

The best hope would be if some of her eggs had been preserved in arrested state, much the way human eggs are stored in the freezers of fertility clinics. Sperm from an elephant could possibly tickle the egg awake from its long hibernation…

The alternative, far more laborious, would be to analyze the sequence of DNA units in the mammoth's genome, make a copy of the DNA, and have it take over an elephant's egg.

Each of those steps has long seemed impossible. But advances in the last few months have made each seem slightly less daunting. Analyzing the DNA sequence is complicated by the fact that ancient DNA, when it can be retrieved at all from fossil bones, is always highly degraded. The genome in every cell breaks down after death into thousands of small fragments of DNA.

But a new kind of DNA decoding machine happens to use such fragments as its starting material. At McMaster University in Canada, Hendrik Poinar and Régis Debruyne plan to use of one the machines, from 454 Life Sciences, to reconstruct a mammoth genome. The remaining obstacle is money. If they had $1 million, they could generate a rough draft of a mammoth genome in about a month, Dr. Debruyne said.

454 Life Sciences was the outfit that sequenced DNA structure co-discoverer James Watson's genome last May. A mammoth genome in a month for just $1 million? Calling Bill Gates, Larry Page, or Sergey Brin.

Whole New York Times article here.

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  1. Calling Bill Gates, Larry Page, or Sergey Brin.

    Shouldn’t we be calling David Brin? We’re already calling Crichton, after all.

  2. lunchstealer,

    Wouldn’t John Varley be the most appropriate?

  3. No, no, no, no, no! Call Andre Agassi!

  4. Maybe our ancestors had good reason for killing off the mammoths?

  5. I’ll only get behind resurrecting T. Rex if I can be assured that it will be The Slider era T. Rex

  6. Every time they find some frozen mammoth, someone writes one of these articles.

    Hate to say it, but until I see evidence that says otherwise, I’m putting “cloning mammoths/other extinct critters” in the same bin with “flying cars” as one of those bits of the future that just never quite seems to happen.

  7. When this becomes possible, I predict the luddite faction of the Green community will launch a campaign against it. Hopefully they’ll stop all that yipping over GM foods.

  8. Ah, and the news came just days after a report that a whole genome was transferred from one organism to another (Latrigue et al., 2007), so it just might be borderline possible in a few years.

    Incidentally, those 454 folks are the ones that sequenced the first 1 mbp of Neanderthal genome. The technology is just plain amazing, though.

  9. When this becomes possible, I predict the luddite faction of the Green community will launch a campaign against it.

    It wouldn’t surprise me if mammoths produced massive amounts of methane.

  10. Mammoth burgers on me! And mammoth hair sweaters!

  11. Warren –

    good call. They’d be worried that the cross contamination between Media’s “flying car” bin and “mammoth” bin will result in flying mammoths.

    And if you think cleaning pigeon droppings is a pain…

  12. Does that mean that one day we might see a remake of “Quest for Fire” with cloned mammoths instead of the fake-looking elephants with shag rugs glued onto them that were in the original movie? And Jessica Alba in the Rae Dawn Chong role? We could shoot the Jessica Alba scenes now and insert the mammoth footage when they’re all cloned and grown.

  13. When this becomes possible, I predict the luddite faction of the Green community will launch a campaign against it.

    For the first few years.

    After a decade or two, the greenies will completely forget that the mammoths are cloned, and when they’re running amok in some rural segment of the country, they’ll flip out over the notion of doing anything to keep the populations in check.

  14. I expect the Massachusetts Biodiversity Ministry will decree that replenishment of the mammoth stocks in Yellowstone is absolutely necessary. And I’ll end up having to chase the damn things out of my yard with a broom. Or a bazooka.

  15. But with the mammoths gone,what is going to keep the cloned sabertooth tiger population in check?

  16. Actually flying cars have happened: There is an example in the Flight Museum at Boeing field.

    The problem is nobody bought them . .

  17. I’ll bid $500,000 to clone it, then when my project is reviewed in a month I’ll blame “unforeseen difficulties” and ask for more money to complete the project (and the next month: rinse, repeat).

    You know, just like these guys would.

  18. “The best hope would be if some of her eggs had been preserved in arrested state, much the way human eggs are stored in the freezers of fertility clinics. Sperm from an elephant could possibly tickle the egg awake from its long hibernation”

    “Analyzing the DNA sequence is complicated by the fact that ancient DNA, when it can be retrieved at all from fossil bones, is always highly degraded. The genome in every cell breaks down after death into thousands of small fragments of DNA.”

    Huh? Science reporting can be so frustrating sometimes. Eggs are apparently not cells, and they don’t contain DNA, because otherwise their DNA would be broken down. Bad science writer, bad.

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