Cloning and Bringing Mammoths Back to Life

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In the 1980s, Kagoshima University professor Kazufumi Goto suggested it was possible to produce a living Woolly mammoth by: 1) breeding a mammoth (using its sperm from a mammoth to fertilize the egg of Asian elephant and repeatedly breeding the offspring to get an animal closer and closer to a mammoth; and 2) cloning a mammoth using DNA taken from a part of a mammoth and fusing it in the egg of an Asia elephant that has been stripped of its elephant genes so the baby would be a mammoth not a hybrid.

In 1990, Goto led a team that produced a healthy calf using the sperm from a dead bull. In 1996, Goto began his search for male Woolly mammoths with sperm-fill reproductive organs near Yakutsk, Siberia, where numerous frozen Woolly mammoths have been found. The chance of finding DNA intact in frozen mammoth sperm is still very remote. Goto has offer $10,000 for mammoth tissue with intact DNA. If a viable embryo is produced it will shipped after five cell divisions to a lab in Thailand at Mahidol university, which has successfully fertilized Asian elephant eggs in vitro. The embryo would then be implanted in a surrogate and ideally emerge as a Woolly mammoth 600 days later.

New research announced in the late 1990s suggested that the idea of bringing a Woolly mammoth back to life may be not as far-fetched as once thought. About 80 percent of the mammoth genome has been pieced together from samples taken from two carcasses found in Siberia. Among the discoveries related to this is that mammoth are much more closely related to modern elephants than previously thought.

The biggest obstacle to overcome will be getting a mammoth cell into good enough shape to inject into a an egg. In most cloning cases a cell is taken from a live animal and injected into the egg. Obviously things are different with a cell taken from a mammoth carcass that as been sitting around for 10,000 years. Instead do being neatly arranged the chromosome are in little pieces and they will have to be reconstructed, something that is far beyond the reach of today's science.

In the early 2000s, scientists at Kinki University in Wakayama tried to clone a mammoth using skin, leg muscle tissue and bone from a mammoth found 1,200 kilometers north of Yakutsk in Siberia.

Stepping Up Efforts to Resurrect a Mammoth in Japan

In January 2011 it was announced that a team of researchers would make a serious attempt to bring back to life a mammoth species using new cloning technologies after obtaining tissue from the carcass of a mammoth preserved in a Russian mammoth research laboratory. "Preparations to realize this goal have been made," Prof. Akira Iritani, leader of the team and a professor emeritus of Kyoto University, told the Yomiuri Shimbun. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, January 13, 2011]

The Yomiuri Shimbun, “Under the plan, the nuclei of mammoth cells will be inserted into an elephant's egg cells from which the nuclei have been removed to create an embryo containing mammoth genes. The embryo will then be inserted into an elephant's womb in the hope that the animal will give birth to a baby mammoth." [Ibid]

Researchers from Kinki University's Graduate School of Biology-Oriented Science and Technology began the study in 1997. On three occasions, the team obtained mammoth skin and muscle tissue excavated in good condition from the permafrost in Siberia.However, most nuclei in the cells were damaged by ice crystals and were unusable. The plan to clone a mammoth was abandoned.

In 2008, Dr. Teruhiko Wakayama of Kobe's Riken Center for Developmental Biology succeeded in cloning a mouse from the cells of mouse that had been kept in deep-freeze for 16 years. The achievement was the first in the world. Based on Wakayama's techniques, Iritani's team devised a technique to extract the nuclei of eggs — only 2 percent to 3 percent are in good condition — without damaging them.

In the spring of 2010, the team invited Minoru Miyashita, a professor of Kinki University who was once head of Osaka's Tennoji Zoo, to participate in the project. He asked zoos across the nation to donate elephant egg cells when their female elephants died. The team also invited the head of the Russian mammoth research laboratory and two U.S. African elephant researchers as guest professors to the university. The research became a joint effort by Japan, Russia and the United States.

If a cloned mammoth embryo can be created, Miyashita and the U.S. researchers, who are experts in animal in vitro fertilization, will be responsible for transplanting the embryo into an African elephant. The team told the Yomiuri Shimbun if everything goes as planned, a mammoth will be born in five to six years. "If a cloned embryo can be created, we need to discuss, before transplanting it into the womb, how to breed [the mammoth] and whether to display it to the public," Iritani said. "After the mammoth is born, we'll examine its ecology and genes to study why the species became extinct and other factors."

Scientists a Step Closer to Cloning Mammoths

In December 2011, Kyodo reported: “The thighbone of a mammoth found in August in Siberia contains well-preserved marrow, increasing the chances of cloning one of the extinct beasts, Japanese and Russian scientists confirmed recently. The teams from the Sakha Republic's mammoth museum in eastern Russia and Kinki University's graduate school in biology-oriented science and technology will launch full-fledged joint research next year to clone the giant mammal, which is believed to have become extinct about 10,000 years ago, they said. [Source: Kyodo, December 4, 2011 \=/]

“By transplanting nuclei taken from the marrow cells into elephant egg cells whose nuclei have been removed through a cloning technique, embryos with a mammoth gene could be produced and planted into elephant wombs, as the two species are close relatives, they said. Securing nuclei with an undamaged gene is essential for the nucleus transplantation technique, but doing so from mammoths is extremely difficult and scientists have been trying to reproduce a mammoth since the late 1990s, they said. \=/

“In the Sakha Republic, global warming has thawed its almost permanently frozen ground, leading to numerous discoveries of frozen mammoths. But cell nuclei are usually damaged or have not been kept in a frozen state even when they have been found in a good overall condition, a Russian museum official said. This time, however, there is a high likelihood that biologically active nuclei can be extracted as the frozen marrow found when museum scientists cut open the thighbone Nov. 13 was fresh and in excellent condition, according to the official. The bone was found near Batagay in northern Sakha. \=/

“The technique for extracting nuclei, meanwhile, has improved dramatically in the past few years and some undamaged nuclei have been successfully taken from badly preserved mammoth tissue fragments, albeit at low rates, said the Kinki University team based in Osaka Prefecture. \=/

“The museum, located in the republic's capital, Yakutsk, soon notified the Japanese side, with which it has had close ties through joint research since 1997, including professor Akira Iritani and associate professor Hiromi Kato. Iritani confirmed that the outstanding condition of the marrow has increased the chances of cloning a mammoth, and said the Japanese team will try to obtain elephant eggs for the research project, although he added this would not be easy.” \=/

Mammoth Genome Achieved in 2008

In 2008, scientists announced that theu had deciphered much of the genetic code of the woolly mammoth, the first time researchers have spelled out the DNA of an extinct species. Seth Borenstein of Associated Press wrote: “The million-dollar mammoth study resulted in a first draft of the animal's genome, detailing the ice age creature's more than 3 billion DNA building blocks. The research published in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature also gives scientists new clues about evolution and extinction."This is an amazing achievement," said Alex Greenwood, an Old Dominion University biology professor who studies ancient DNA and was not involved in the mammoth research. [Source: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, November 19, 2008 ||||]

“To obtain the DNA, scientists relied on 20 balls of mammoth hair found frozen in the Siberian permafrost. The new study, which is about 80 percent complete, provides a letter-by-letter genetic code mapping out most of the mammoth's DNA. Think of it as an instruction sheet on how to build a mammoth.||||

“Elephants and mammoths diverged along evolutionary paths about 6 million years ago, about the same time humans and chimps did, Schuster said. But there are twice as many differences between the genetic makeup of chimps and humans as those between elephants and mammoths. "Primates evolved twice as fast as elephants," Schuster said. But some animals such as rodents have had even more evolutionary changes, indicating that their development might have to do with size or metabolism, said study co-author Webb Miller. ||||

“Another interesting finding: In the 50 or so species with mostly mapped genomes, there are certain areas where the genetic code is exactly the same in all the animals — except the mammoth.In other animals, these proteins "stayed the same for a very long time," said Miller, professor of biology and computer science at Penn State. "I don't know what it means. All I did was find them." ||||

“Miller and Schuster noticed that most of the mammoths they examined had far less genetic diversity than other species still alive, and that may also give a clue to the biology of extinction. So the two are also applying what they learned from the Siberian behemoth to their other efforts to help save Australia's endangered Tasmanian devil, which has the same lack of genetic diversity. ||||

Mammoth Genome Provides Basis for Mammoth Cloning

Seth Borenstein of Associated Press wrote: “The Woolly mammoth genome sequencing “project marks the first time researchers have spelled out the DNA of an extinct species, and it raised the possibility that other ancient animals such as mastodons and sabertooth tigers might someday walk the Earth again. "It could be done. The question is, just because we might be able to do it one day, should we do it?" asked Stephan Schuster, a Penn State University biochemist and co-author of the new research. "I would be surprised to see if it would take more than 10 or 20 years to do it." [Source: Seth Borenstein, Associated Press, November 19, 2008 ||||]

“Schuster said researchers should someday be able to recreate any extinct creature that lived within the last 100,000 years as long as it got trapped in permafrost and had hair. That leaves out the Jurassic period, the time of dinosaurs, from about 140 million to 200 million years ago. So Earth's real-life sequel to extinction is far more likely to be "Ice Age 3" than "Jurassic Park IV." In 2005, “Japanese scientists said they hoped to find frozen mammoth sperm and impregnate an elephant and raise the offspring in a safari park in Siberia. But using genetics to engineer a mammoth makes more sense, Schuster said. ||||

“Anthropology professor Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said he no longer considers such ideas impossible. Poinar, who wasn't part of Schuster's study but consulted on the movie "Jurassic Park," said director Steven Spielberg may have had it right when he told skeptical scientists: "This is the science of eventuality." ||||

“There are two possible ways to use this new genetic map to make a mammoth, and both involve creating a mammoth embryo and implanting it into its elephant cousin. Both methods are incredibly complex and rely on intricate genetic manipulation because the mammoth DNA is not suitable for cloning. One approach requires scientists to start with an elephant cell and genetically engineer it to match the DNA code of a mammoth.The other method involves synthetic biology in which scientists would create life forms from scratch. Once this technique is developed — and leaders in the field say it is just three to 10 years away — scientists would follow the mammoth recipe to build a mammoth cell. An easier option would be to examine what makes the mammoth different from its closest cousin, the African elephant, and create a hairy hybrid to sit in zoos. "People would like to see a hairy elephant," said George Church, director of computational genomics at Harvard Medical School.” ||||

Sooam Biotech’s Effort to Bring Back the Mammoth

Carl Zimmer wrote in National Geographic: “armed with the new cloning technologies, researchers at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Seoul have teamed up with mammoth experts from North-Eastern Federal University in the Siberian city of Yakutsk.” In the summer of 2012 “they traveled up the Yana River, drilling tunnels into the frozen cliffs along the river with giant hoses. In one of those tunnels they found chunks of mammoth tissue, including bone marrow, hair, skin, and fat. [Source: Carl Zimmer, National Geographic, April 2013]

“The tissue is now in Seoul, where the Sooam scientists are examining it. “If we dream about it, the ideal case would be finding a viable cell, a cell that’s alive,” says Sooam’s Insung Hwang, who organized the Yana River expedition. If the Sooam researchers do find such a cell, they could coax it to produce millions of cells. These could be reprogrammed to grow into embryos, which could then be implanted in surrogate elephants, the mammoth’s closest living relatives.

“Most scientists doubt that any living cell could have survived freezing on the open tundra. But Hwang and his colleagues have a Plan B: capture an intact nucleus of a mammoth cell, which is far more likely to have been preserved than the cell itself. Cloning a mammoth from nothing but an intact nucleus, however, will be a lot trickier. The Sooam researchers will need to transfer the nucleus into an elephant egg that has had its own nucleus removed. This will require harvesting eggs from an elephant—a feat no one has yet accomplished. If the DNA inside the nucleus is well preserved enough to take control of the egg, it just might start dividing into a mammoth embryo. If the scientists can get past that hurdle, they still have the formidable task of transplanting the embryo into an elephant’s womb. Then, as Zimov cautions, they will need patience. If all goes well, it will still be almost two years before they can see if the elephant will give birth to a healthy mammoth. “The thing that I always say is, if you don’t try, how would you know that it’s impossible?” says Hwang.”

The “genome-retooling method could theoretically work on any species with a close living relative and a genome capable of being reconstructed. So even if the Sooam team fails to find an intact mammoth nucleus, someone might still bring the species back. Scientists already have the technology for reconstructing most of the genes it takes to make a mammoth, which could be inserted into an elephant stem cell. And there is no shortage of raw material for further experiments emerging from the Siberian permafrost. “With mammoths, it’s really a dime a dozen up there,” says Hendrik Poinar, an expert on mammoth DNA at McMaster University in Ontario. “It’s just a matter of finances now.” Though the revival of a mammoth or a passenger pigeon is no longer mere fantasy, the reality is still years away. For another extinct species, the time frame may be much shorter. Indeed, there’s at least a chance it may be back among the living before this story is published.”

Colossal — the Company That Aims to Bring Back the Mammoth

The biosciences firm Colossal aims to use gene-editing techniques to bring back wooly mammoths AFP reported in 2021: “New company Colossal, capitalizing on a partnership with a Harvard geneticist, said its species "de-extinction" effort has the potential to anchor a working model for restoring damaged or lost ecosystems and thereby help slow or even halt the effects of climate change. "Never before has humanity been able to harness the power of this technology to rebuild ecosystems, heal our Earth and preserve its future through the repopulation of extinct animals," Colossal chief executive and co-founder Ben Lamm, an emerging technology entrepreneur, said. "In addition to bringing back ancient extinct species like the woolly mammoth, we will be able to leverage our technologies to help preserve critically endangered species that are on the verge of extinction and restore animals where humankind had a hand in their demise." [Source: AFP, September 14, 2021]

For decades, scientists have been recovering bits and pieces of mammoth tusks, bones, teeth and hair to extract and try to sequence the mammoth's DNA. Colossal says it aims to insert DNA sequences of woolly mammoths, collected from well-preserved remains in the permafrost and frozen steppes, into the genome of Asian elephants, to create an "elephant-mammoth hybrid." Asian elephants and woolly mammoths share a 99.6 percent similar DNA makeup, Colossal says on its website.

“Company co-founder George Church is a renowned geneticist and professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, who is using pioneering techniques, including CRISPR technology, to advance species de-extinction. "Technologies discovered in pursuit of this grand vision — a living, walking proxy of a woolly mammoth — could create very significant opportunities in conservation and beyond," Church said. The woolly mammoth's vast migration patterns were seen as critical to preserving the Arctic region's environmental health. Colossal says restoring the beasts has the potential to revitalize the Arctic grasslands, a vast region with major climate change-combatting properties, such as carbon sequestering and methane suppression. Colossal is funded in part through a $15 million seed round from investors and says its advisors include leaders in bioethics and genomics.

Recreating the Mammoth Steppe

Sergey Zimov, a Russian ecologist and director of the Northeast Science Station in Cherskiy in the Republic of Sakha in northern Siberia, told The New Yorker: We are not trying exactly to reconstruct the mammoth steppe ecosystem, because we don’t have the mammoth. But we are trying to reconstruct the highly productive steppe ecosystem.”

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker: “Zimov brought in reindeer and a breed of very cold-hardy horses known as Yakutians. A few years ago, he imported five European bison to the park, but only one—a male—survived the second winter. “Now we are looking for girlfriends,” Zimov said. Several musk oxen were also brought in, but they, too, were all males. “We also search females for them,” Zimov told me. The Pleistocene Park, which is in northeastern Siberia, is so remote that almost no one who isn’t conducting research there has ever visited it.” [Source: Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker, December 24 & 31, 2012 ||*||]

Carl Zimmer wrote in National Geographic: Zimov “has long argued that this was no coincidence: The mammoths and numerous herbivores maintained the grassland by breaking up the soil and fertilizing it with their manure. Once they were gone, moss took over and transformed the grassland into less productive tundra. [Source: Carl Zimmer, National Geographic, April 2013]

“In recent years Zimov has tried to turn back time on the tundra by bringing horses, muskoxen, and other big mammals to a region of Siberia he calls Pleistocene Park. And he would be happy to have woolly mammoths roam free there. “But only my grandchildren will see them,” he says. “A mouse breeds very fast. Mammoths breed very slow. Be prepared to wait.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFPand various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

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