Back in May 2013, scientists from Russia unearthed the remains of a 43,000 year old woolly mammoth. The animal is currently being autopsied by an international group of scientists at the North Eastern Federal University located in Siberia. The international team includes scientists from Russia, the USA, Denmark, South Korea, the UK, and Moldova. What the team found as they started the autopsy was that the creature was preserved to the point that flowing blood was found within muscle tissues. The soft tissue appears to be very well preserved, better preserved even than they would expect to find on a human buried for six months. They believe that the state of preservation gives them a high chance to locate the cells required before cloning the woolly mammoth would become completely possible.
One of the scientists, Radik Khayrullin, the Russian Association of Medical Anthropologists’ vice president, said that they will have a high chance at cloning the mammoth with the data they are obtaining but there are still important elements that need to be uncovered. Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be finding cells that are still living. If the cells are found they will have to be inscribed with the creature’s genome. At this point, scientists are already searching for the least damaged examples of DNA to create the genome.
Assuming everything comes together in the manner hoped by the scientists and the currently stated high chance becomes an even greater possibility, the actual cloning will not produce the same type of woolly mammoth that died out 4,000 to 10,000 years ago. The cloned mammoth will need to be interbred with a female elephant. The team is currently looking at female Asian elephants for the cloning project. The newly cultured living mammoth cells would be spliced into an elephant embryo. This would effectively create a chimera; part woolly mammoth, part elephant. The resultant embryo would then be implanted into a surrogate elephant who will then become the mammoth’s birth mother. One researcher, Semyon Grigoriev from North Eastern Federal University, believes the cloning process might prove difficult than expected. Grigoriev, who is head of the Museum of Mammoths of the Institute of Applied Ecology of the North, indicates that the evolutionary paths of the woolly mammoth and the elephant diverged many years ago.
According to scientists, even if no living cells are found, the possibility of cloning the mammoth may still exist. Biotechnologists may eventually be able to create cells from artificial DNA. The possibility of that cell creation is most likely decades away, though.
Regardless of whether the cloning takes place, the team has been surprised by the preservation of the body. While the mammoth’s upper body had been eaten by other animals, the lower part and the trunk were remarkably well preserved. There was still blood inside the vessels where, for the first time, erythrocytes have been found. The liver is still there and appears to have solid fragments inside of it. The team has not yet had time to study these fragments. The intestines are also still there and house the remains of the mammoth’s last meal. There is a multi-chambered stomach from which tissue samples are being obtained.
The autopsy investigation is slated to conclude today, March 15. Scientists are aiming to hold a conference in May to discuss the results of all their findings. Currently, the May conference is being scheduled to be held in Greece. More information on the woolly mammoth should be available at the conference and scientists will be able to more accurately predict if the cloning still has a high chance or not. If the possibility of cloning becomes a reality, it is at that point that scientists and researchers will begin to explore the ethical side of the issue.
By Dee Mueller