Several weeks ago, the astoundingly well-preserved and intact body of an ancient wild horse foal was extracted from the icy permafrost of the Batagaika crater in Yakutia, Siberia. Researchers at the North-Eastern Federal University Mammoth Museum have determined that the young horse, a member of the extinct Pleistocene species Equus lenensis, was less than one month old when it perished, some 30,000 to 40,000 years ago.
And now, according to a report in The Siberian Times, the Russian team has joined forces with South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk in order to attempt cloning the foal. Hwang was a highly regarded leader in the field of stem cell research until 2005, when under intense mounting scrutiny over the integrity of his famous research, he admitted to falsifying much of his data on somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) – the technique underlying cloning as we know it – and to committing numerous ethical violations in the procurement of human egg cells and embryos.
After having his academic appointments stripped and his most important papers retracted, Hwang largely retreated into private research, though he did assist the Seoul National University group in their endeavor to clone the first dog (they succeeded in 2005). Eventually, in 2012, Hwang founded the Soam Biotech Research Foundation: a research company that also offers commercial pet cloning.
Regarding the frozen horse specimen, Hwang told The Siberian Times: "If we manage to find a cell, then we will do our best to clone the unique animal.”
"If we have one live cell, we can multiply it and get as many embryos as we need,” he said, noting that finding a cell in pristine condition after prolonged freezing will be difficult, as ice crystals cause cells to rupture. However, he explained that one of his lead scientists had been able to isolate a “live” (we’re presuming he means revived) cell from the tissue of a deceased dog whose body had been placed in a freezer, and the subsequent cloning went smoothly. His team brought all the materials necessary to repeat the process to the museum’s lab in Yakutsk.
Once a cell line from the foal has been established, they may then begin work on the SCNT cloning procedure. The genetic material-containing nuclei will be transferred into denucleated egg cells taken from a related animal – in this case, an extant species of wild horse – and, using signaling molecules, the resulting cell will be induced to behave like an embryo.
If and when this step has been achieved, the embryos can be implanted into a surrogate horse mother.
“There are the types of horses that are very close with the ancient one,” Hwang added, unlike the mammoth, which is separated from its proposed surrogate species – elephants – by millions of years of evolution
“And if we manage to clone the horse – it will be the first step to cloning the mammoth. It will help us to work out the technology.”