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Though Many Consider It Woolly, Scientist Pursues Dream To Resurrect Mammoths In Siberia

  • Courtney Brooks

A well-preserved baby mammoth found frozen in Russia. The 6-month-old female calf was discovered on the Yamal Peninsula and is thought to have died 10,000 years ago. (file photo)

A well-preserved baby mammoth found frozen in Russia. The 6-month-old female calf was discovered on the Yamal Peninsula and is thought to have died 10,000 years ago. (file photo)

All scientists have dreams. Curing cancer or AIDS are common, and lofty, goals.

Cloning a woolly mammoth, a species that has been extinct for 10,000 years, is a somewhat more controversial venture, but that is exactly what a Japanese scientist, with Russian support, is planning to do.

Professor Akira Iritani, director of the Institute of Advanced Technology at Kinki University in Japan, has been spearheading the initiative, known as the Mammoth Creation Project, for the past 13 years.

"The present mankind has a responsibility -- a duty -- to revive extinct animals because some portions of our culture, our present developed culture, destroyed their living environment," Iritani says.

Pleistocene Park is a privately owned nature preserve at the mouth of the Kolyma River in northeastern Siberia, some 150 kilometers south of the Arctic Ocean. Woolly mammoths once roamed here and the area has been designated as a potential habitat for future mammoths.

Sergei Zimov, a conservationist who runs the park, is currently attempting to re-create the natural habitat that existed in the area 10,000 years ago by re-introducing animals that once were ubiquitous, including, reindeer, wild horses, and bison.

"My responsibility is to prepare the mammoth ecosystem, a landscape typical for the mammoth. And I have been successful in this project," Zimov says. "Therefore, if some crazy people have found enough money and they [revive]the mammoth…we will be ready."

Voila! A Baby Mammoth

Back in his laboratory in Japan, Iritani is optimistic that he will clone a mammoth in the next five years. His most recent plan is to remove the nucleus from an egg cell of an elephant and replace it with DNA from a frozen woolly mammoth. This could, theoretically, create an embryo which would be implanted into an elephant's uterus, and 22 months later a baby mammoth would be born.

Such complex social animals, to imagine generating one of them to be raised in isolation, it's almost unthinkable...what the life of that animal would be and how disoriented it would be.
But paleontologists and conservationists have raised concerns about the logistics and ethics behind the venture, as well as whether the funding needed could be better allocated to conservation efforts for endangered species. Iritani says the venture is funded by Kinki University, as well as Russian and other Japanese research institutions.

Daniel Fisher, a professor at the University of Michigan's Museum of Paleontology, has dissected three woolly mammoths found in Siberia's permafrost over the last few years. He said that he has yet to find cells in good enough condition to be used for cloning purposes.

"We have, I would say, really no cells in which we've been able to visualize intact nuclei," Fisher says. "And that's really what's required for the sort of cloning operation that's being discussed now."

He said turning up anything useful would require extensive investigation of different cells and a "lot of luck."

'Shattered' DNA

Adrian Lister, a professor in the paleontology department of the Museum of Natural History in London, echoes Fisher, calling the mammoth DNA "shattered," as well as raising concerns about whether a woolly mammoth would have a place to call home.

"Its natural habitat has more or less disappeared. That's probably why it went extinct in the first place many thousands of years ago, because the kind of grassland habitat of the far north that it formally lived in doesn't really exist anymore," Lister says. "So you would have to keep it in captivity."

A woolly mammoth skeleton
Fisher agreed, adding that mammoths, like elephants, are highly social animals with complex behavior and communication patterns.

"Such complex social animals, to imagine generating one of them to be raised in isolation, it's almost unthinkable...what the life of that animal would be and how disoriented it would be," Fisher says.

Second Thoughts


Naida Loskutoff, director of reproductive sciences at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo in the U.S. state of Nebraska, was recruited by Iritani and his team. He invited her to be an adjunct professor at Kinki University and flew her to Japan at the end of 2009 to give lectures on conservation biology. It was at that point she realized he wanted her to secure the elephant eggs needed for research and eventually the live elephant to be impregnated with the mammoth embryo.

She said that while she considers him a "pioneer" in his field, she felt she could not be part of the project.

"To me, it just doesn't warrant all of the expense and resources that would need to be put into something like that," she says. "I would much rather all that -- the funds and the resources and the expertise -- go into conserving animals that are living today, that are threatened and endangered, rather than try to resurrect an extinct species."

Despite the controversy surrounding the project, Iritani will travel to Siberia this summer to try to obtain better-quality mammoth tissue.

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