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Could Ancient Giants Be Cloned?

Is It Possible, And Is It Wise?

An international team of scientists studied Lyuba after her discovery, performing an autopsy and DNA analysis. (RIA Novosti, Courtesy Boston Museum of Science)

An international team of scientists studied Lyuba after her discovery, performing an autopsy and DNA analysis. (RIA Novosti, Courtesy Boston Museum of Science)

“Paleontologists dream about getting to see the species they dig up fully fleshed out and ‘doing what they do’ naturally,” writes Katie Slivensky, a paleontology expert at the Museum of Science, Boston.

“Fleshing out” mammoths is exactly what some scientists are trying to do now.

Akira Iritani, a scientist from Kyoto University, has been working for years to clone mammoths. And Hwang Woo-Suk, a South Korean scientist, intends to bring a mammoth back to life in six years, per the agreement he signed with Russia’s North-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) in March.

“From what I understand of the process of cloning,” Slivensky continued, “Mr. Hwang doesn’t have much of a chance of making this work. It’s not just about having usable mammoth DNA. Cloning is an extremely tricky process far beyond just securing cells from a mammoth. More often than not, cloning fails even using modern-day animal DNA.”

Dr. Roger Sloboda, a biologist at Dartmouth College, is not inclined to even consider cloning extinct animals. To him, it is a “… frivolous, egotistical thing to do when there are so many other things that we need to address.”

“What we should be doing is promoting stem cell research,” he maintains.

“The major concerns here,” states Ruth Sample, philosophy professor at the University of New Hampshire, “are the risk posed to currently living things, the possible misallocation of limited resource funding, as well as possible harm to the cloned organism.”

Or, in the words, of Dr. Sloboda, “If we clone a mammoth and it’s a male, then we have only one mammoth. … One poor lonely mammoth!”

Dr. Ronald Green, a bioethicist at Dartmouth, asserts that there are “two ethical imperatives” if we are to bring back an extinct animal: “the well-being of the species (to be cloned), and the well-being of the biosphere as a whole.”

He questions whether, at its core, it is fair to bring back a species that has been extinct, particularly if it is a social species, as mammoths are believed to have been. If cloning is successful, then it follows that we should clone a large number of the species. If we clone a large number of the species, then our responsibility is to provide ample space and the appropriate setting for them.

Enter Pleistocene Park in Siberia.

A project that begun in 1989 by Russian scientist Sergey Zimov, 40,000 acres of land have been designated to recreate the steppe ecosystem from the end of the Pleistocene period — the very environment in which the mammoths lived. According to the park’s website, “If enough area is covered by steppe it would diminish the effects of global warming by increased anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.” In other words, the goal is to repopulate the area with certain animals in order to recreate that Ice Age environment and slow global warming.

But should mammoths be brought back to life, it would be hard to recommend any other place for them.

Many mammoth discoveries continue to be made, but we have yet to find intact DNA from any of them. Mammoths are largely thought to have become extinct 12,000-10,000 years ago. Some species of mammoth, however, are reported to have existed a mere 3,700 years ago on islands off of Russia and Alaska. Unlike the millions of years of distance between dinosaurs and the modern era, mammoths seem almost contemporary.

Still, Dr. Edward Berger, professor of biology at Dartmouth, states, “Intact nuclei are not going to be available, and the Jurassic Park model is pure but highly entertaining fantasy.”
But paleontologist Will Clyde, associate professor at UNH, points out that when he was in school “no one thought we’d be able to recover amino acids (from fossils), but we have.”

“I’m not one to say that (cloning an extinct animal) will never happen,” he said, “but I will say that we can’t right now see a clear path to how it could happen.”

Dr. Green is optimistic about our increasing knowledge of and advances in genetics. “We are to genetics as Lewis and Clark are to the American continent,” he mused. They were sent out to explore a “completely unknown territory” and within a century that “unknown territory was mapped.”

In his view, this is “the century of the exploration of the genome.”

“I would hope that people would consider whether cloning an extinct animal is the best use of our resources,” explained Sample, “If cloning an extinct animal could provide useful information that would advance our scientific research, and did not pose any risk to us, it might be worth it.”

But Slivensky asserts, “… I don’t think we’re prepared for mammoth cloning yet. A lot more needs to be tackled before we attempt such a thing.”

More details about Pleistocene Park can be found here: hwww.pleistocenepark.ru/en/

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