A remarkably well preserved woolly mammoth carcass discovered last year could finally provide scientists with a rare opportunity to bring these iconic beasts back to life. Scientists have extensively analyzed the specimen in order to reconstruct its life history and are now attempting to work out whether they have enough DNA for cloning experiments. Although some scientists are desperate to make history and resurrect these long-extinct animals, others strongly oppose the idea and have once again highlighted the ethical issues surrounding this contentious topic.
The mammoth was discovered in May last year on the remote Siberian island Malyi Lyakhovsky. Only the tusks were visible when scientists first approached the area, jutting out of the deep snow, but excavations quickly revealed that the animal was remarkably complete. Three legs, most of the body, the trunk and parts of the head were all still intact, and the animal even exuded a dark red liquid which could have been blood.
After the excavation was complete, the team brought the animal, which was nicknamed Buttercup, into the laboratory for examination. Despite having a reputation as ginormous animals, this female was only around 2.5 meters tall, which is similar in size to modern-day Asian elephants.
Carbon dating revealed that the female mammoth lived around 43,000 years ago, and analysis of her teeth indicated that she was probably in her 50s when she died. Because tusk growth significantly slows down during pregnancy, the scientists were also able to reveal that the animal had given birth at least eight times but lost one calf.
By examining the contents of her gut, the scientists were also able to divulge details of her diet, which mostly included grassland plants such as dandelions. The tooth marks on her bones also told the scientists how her life came to end. After becoming trapped in a bog, she was likely eaten alive by carnivores such as wolves.
But by far the most exciting find was the blood that flowed out from her flesh as scientists inserted instruments into her elbow. Previously discovered specimens only had tiny amounts of blood left in their bodies despite appearing well-preserved, and it never contained enough DNA for cloning. Although the scientists haven’t found a complete copy of her genome yet, they have found large chunks of DNA which could potentially be stitched together. Alternatively, it might be possible to go Jurassic Park-style and combine the mammoth DNA with DNA from modern-day elephants.
While scientists may eventually have the tools necessary to clone Buttercup, whether or not we should be doing this is a different kettle of fish. The process would require a surrogate elephant mother to carry the mammoth for 22 months, and the animal may not even survive. Furthermore, mammoths are social creatures, but the clone would probably be forced to live in an artificial and lonely environment such as a zoo. If it was released into the wild, then it could possibly disturb natural ecosystems.
Others, however, think that the scientific information that could be gleaned from such an endeavor outweigh the ethical considerations, as long as there is a good chance that the animal will be healthy.
[Via Live Science, the Telegraph and the Independent]