A recent report quotes Sir Ian Wilmut, whose team cloned Dolly the sheep, the world’s first cloned mammal, on the subject of bringing back extinct mammoths. He suggests in the academic journalism site, The Conversation, that it might be possible to convert tissue cells into stem cells. He says that it will take hundreds of thousands of cells from a closely-related species such as the Asian elephant, plus scores of mammoth cells.
Sir Ian explains how it might be possible to introduce four selected proteins to give adult cells the characteristics of embryo stem cells. He also writes that stem cells can also be induced to form gametes, but he suggests it is not known whether those stem cells could form viable eggs and sperm to fertilize the eggs.
Sir Ian is concerned that this should only be done if the mammoth produced can enjoy a decent life. This would certainly involve making more than one, since the woolly mammoth was a social, herd species.
A further report tells of ongoing attempts to recreate the ancient grasslands of Northeast Siberia in Pleistocene Park, where reindeer and bison have already been introduced. It would be ideal territory for our new mammoths to roam.
Prof Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum is more skeptical, pointing out that the mammoth DNA has been broken for thousands of years into “an alphabet soup of bits and pieces of DNA left in that frozen tissue.” However,
One plan involves piecing together the mammoth genome, using broken strands, collected from many different samples. By comparing this genome with the mammoth’s closest living relative, the Asian elephant, researchers hope to find the genetic variation that made a mammoth a mammoth. They will then use Asian elephant DNA to plug any holes in the code.
Despite the caveats and difficulties, I am pretty certain that woolly mammoths will roam the Earth again. Human technology and ingenuity will find ways of making this possible. We won’t be certain that they will be exact and authentic reproductions of the ancient beasts, but they’ll be close enough. Nature itself shows at least as much variation.
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