Science & Technology

First Dibs on the Woolly Mammoth Ride at the Zoo


The X Prize Foundation is considering a "Jurassic Park Prize" (named after the Michael Crichton novel in which kindly paleontologists bring dinosaurs back to life for the enjoyment of the world's children) that has the goal of finding "a safe, repeatable, and reliable fashion to bring back extinct species to rebuild a population." Back in 2008, Pennsylvania State University geneticist Stephan Schuster told the New York Times that he believed that it would be possible to clone a woolly mammoth for just $10 million. At the time, Schuster was thinking that a lot DNA repair would be needed in order to recreate a mammoth genomes. Perhaps that won't be necessary.

The Associated Press is reporting that researchers have discovered frozen well-preserved fragments of a woolly mammoth in Siberia which may contain living cells. As the AP notes:

Russia's North-Eastern Federal University said an international team of researchers had discovered mammoth hair, soft tissues and bone marrow some 328 feet (100 m) underground during a summer expedition in the northeastern province of Yakutia.

Expedition chief Semyon Grigoryev said Korean scientists with the team had set a goal of finding living cells in the hope of cloning a mammoth. Scientists have previously found bones and fragments but not living cells.

Grigoryev told the online newspaper Vzglyad it would take months of research to determine whether they have indeed found the cells.

"Only after thorough laboratory research will it be known whether these are living cells or not," he said, adding that would take until the end of the year at the earliest.

Wooly mammoths are thought to have died out around 10,000 years ago, although scientists think small groups of them lived longer in Alaska and on Russia's Wrangel Island off the Siberian coast.

Scientists already have deciphered much of the genetic code of the woolly mammoth from balls of mammoth hair found frozen in the Siberian permafrost. Some believe it's possible to recreate the prehistoric animal if they find living cells in the permafrost.

If a relatively undamaged mammoth genome could be recovered, the genetic information might be inserted in an elephant's egg that then could serve as a gestational surrogate. Would this work? Back in 2011, Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary geneticist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada suggested at LiveScience that it might:

"We know African and Asian elephants can interbreed, and they're separated by 5 million to 6 million years," Poinar said. "Asian elephants are actually closer to mammoths than they are to African elephants — mammoths split from Asian elephants after Asian elephants split from African elephants — so if living elephants can interbreed, perhaps an Asian elephant can host a mammoth embryo."

Oddly, Poinar huffed:

"There is no good scientific reason to bring back an extinct species. Why would one bring them back? To put them in a theme park?"

Well, actually yes. And then maybe later let them roam free in Siberia, Alaska, and Canada.