Mammoth-like Jurassic Park could be in the future

Two separate research teams have plans to resurrect a woolly mammoth. These teams have plans to clone a woolly mammoth in the next 5 years if everything goes as planned. It is just a matter of time before a woolly mammoth could be walking the face of the Earth once more.

The two research teams working toward an effort to clone woolly mammoths are a Korean-Russian team and a Japanese-Russian team. Both teams hope to recover viable genetic material from a frozen woolly mammoth. Once they have collected a usable cell nucleus, they will use it to replace the nucleus of an elephant egg. That egg will be implanted in an elephant. If carried to term a few months later, a new woolly mammoth will be born — the first to be born in 10,000 years.

The Korean team just started their efforts this year and have just recently worked out an agreement with Russian researchers that would allow them to gain access to the preserved remains of a woolly mammoth. This team is led by controversial scientist Hwang Woo-Suk, who is best known for his research attempts to clone a human embryo. For a whole year, he and his researchers claimed to have succeeded and to have extracted stem cells from what he claimed to be the first human embryo clone. Under scrutiny, the research did not hold up and was found to be fabricated. Since then he has been working on cloning animals and recently revealed six cloned coyotes, who were created by injecting nuclei from coyote skin cells into dog eggs.

Bringing back the woolly mammoth. Graphic by Laura Bramble.

The Japanese research team is a year ahead of their Korean competitors. In December 2011 they announced finding viable genetic material in some bone marrow that they hoped to use to clone a woolly mammoth. The Japanese researchers have plans for their cloned woolly mammoth. If successful, they have discussed the idea of breeding the cloned animal and displaying it to the public. The research is aimed to understand why the woolly mammoth went extinct 10,000 years ago.

What makes all of this mammoth research possible, is an experiment that was conducted by Teruhiko Wakayama of the Riken Center for Developmental Biology. In 2008, Wakayama successfully pioneered a new technique which allowed him to clone a mouse from a mouse that had been frozen for 16 years. Previous attempts to clone animals from frozen tissue have failed, as the tissue became damaged in the process, preventing any viable genetic material from being recovered. Wakayama’s technique improves the chances of recovering viable genetic material from frozen animals.

While both research teams are working hard toward being the first to clone a woolly mammoth, they have a long road ahead of them. Even if both teams manage to collect usable genetic material, the success rates are extremely low for bringing cloned animals to term. Once born, cloned animals do not frequently live very long — the benchmark for their survival being 22 days.

This research is sure to face controversy, especially with the Japanese team that has expressed interest in breeding cloned mammoths. In the months and years to come, it will be interesting to see how far each team goes. Will mammoths one day become a common attraction to zoos, or will the researchers fail? Or even worse, what if, whatever killed the mammoths off in the first place is still floating around even after all these years and strikes again?