Biologists are trying to resurrect the woolly mammoth, Frankenstein style
Woolly mammoths belong in the land before time. They roamed the earth with dinosaurs and with Neanderthals, thousands of years before our ancestors were even a twinkle in the eyes of their ancestors. But scientists around the world may be about to change all that. Recent discoveries of woolly mammoth carcasses, complete with life-giving blood and tissue, have given researchers around the world a new challenge: resurrecting the long-extinct beast. Some scientists are going the cloning route, attempting to recreate a complete woolly mammoth with just the DNA found in the frozen carcass, while others are attempting Jurassic Park-like splices between woolly mammoth DNA and modern-day elephant cells. The science is exciting, the possibilities are endless, and the race to bring back the woolly mammoth is on.
What was the woolly mammoth?
The woolly mammoth is the ancestor of the elephant. Woolly mammoths were probably close in size to the African elephants of today, albeit with smaller ears. These prehistoric beasts lived thousands of years ago; most of them died out around 10,000 years ago. However, people today are just as obsessed with them as our cave-dwelling ancestors were.
Who is trying to bring the woolly mammoth back?
Every year, hunters explore the New Siberian islands hoping to stumble upon woolly mammoth tusks. In 2013, a group of explorers from Russia found much more than they were expecting: they stumbled upon a woolly mammoth carcass, complete with most of the body, three legs, part of the trunk, and, thrillingly, oozy red blood.
It didn’t take long for researchers to dig into Buttercup, as the woolly mammoth was later named, and discover that she lived around 40,000 years ago. Teams from all over the world are now working to take the blood from Buttercup and engineer a modern-day woolly mammoth a la Jurassic Park’s dinosaur creation.
A team at Harvard University led by George Church has been working since 2015 on a woolly mammoth-Asian elephant hybrid animal. The Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in South Korea is trying a different approach: woolly mammoth cloning. Clone scientist Hwang Woo-suk has already successfully cloned dogs, so why not woolly mammoths?
A Japanese biologist has been working on recreating the woolly mammoth from a different starting point. 90-year-old Akira Iritani had almost given up on his dream of bringing back the woolly mammoth when he heard of the 2012 discovery of a woolly mammoth carcass. He has had his team working on extracting and using its DNA ever since. Under Iritani’s leadership, the team, made up of Japanese and Russian scientists, has been using nuclear transfer to put woolly mammoth muscle tissue cells into reproductive cells of mice. Although the team has had some success, they will eventually move from working with mouse cells to elephant cells, similar to Church’s Harvard work.
What is the purpose of bringing back woolly mammoths?
While it would unarguably be pretty cool to see a woolly mammoth lumbering around in the modern day, the scientists spearheading the woolly mammoth resurgence research have other reasons for embarking on this path of resurrection. Iritani feels ethically compelled to continue his work, claiming that understanding the reasons certain species have gone extinct will lead to increased protection for endangered animals. He believes that not only have people led to the extinction of some animal species but that people can also preserve currently endangered species. Perhaps the work his team and other teams are doing will lead to woolly mammoths roaming the earth once again and to new types of protection and preservation to the animals we are still lucky enough to know today.