Cloning the Mammoth?

05/07/2009

The discovery of the best-preserved mammoth ever found ranks as one of the coolest science finds of all time. But seriously folks, am I the only one who wonders what the heck they are thinking when talking about cloning the mammoth?

In 2007, a one-month old baby mammoth was found frozen in a Siberian swamp, and University of Michigan paleontologists, including Professor Daniel Fisher, are studying her. They know she lived more than 10,000 years ago and died in a mud pit. Named Lyuba, the mammoth has its skin, bones, organs almost fully intact. She even has mother’s milk in her tummy.

Scientists have already decoded 70% of the woolly mammoth’s genome, and with the discovery of Lyuba, they most certainly can finish the job. Cloning a mammal is no simple feat, but it can be done. Since 1996 when Dolly the sheep was cloned from somatic, or non germ-line cells, scientists have since cloned several animals, including a domestic sheep, rabbit, cat, dog, mouse, goat, mule, horse, pig, and camel. Only a handful of wildlife species have been cloned and most have not survived long due to succumbing quickly to disease or illness. A water buffalo died after five days due to a lung infection. The endangered ox-like Gaur died of dysentery  48 hours after birth. A cloned moufflon sheep survived longer, as did a cloned rhesus monkey,Tetra.  But for every cloned animal that survived were many more that died early, or had tumors or subtle genetic abnormalities.

But no one has ever successfully cloned an extinct animal. And scientists have long debated the possible problems with cloning extinct, endangered or rare species.

Maybe Jurassic Park is etched too deeply in my mind, but it seems like the massive beast of a woolly mammoth would not be the ideal candidate for cloning. What if they have very bad tempers?

Besides the fact that we have no idea what their temperament may be, we don’t know what their dietary needs might be, whether they have any co-evolved intestinal microorganisms that have since gone extinct and whether they could even survive in today’s non-Ice Age world. Bringing back a species that is long since extinct, like the woolly mammoth, is surely more ecologically problematic than attempts to restore presently endangered species, or recently extinct species like the Tasmanian tiger. It’s not like we’re going to have herds of cloned mammoths anytime soon, given the long arduous task any animal cloning involves but the question remains – if one does successfully clone the mammoth, where will it go? We could put the mammoth in a zoo or a pen, and study it like a lab rat. And that’s probably what would happen. Is that ethical?

Then again, we will certainly never know the answers to these fascinating scientific questions if nobody tries. What do you think about cloning long extinct species?

Check out the Top 10 Extinct Animals.

Learn more about extinct creatures. Watch "Animal Armageddon" on Animal Planet.


Follow fascinating, funny, tragic or otherwise compelling and timely stories about animals, as chosen by our editors and writers, including Daily Treat blogger, Janet McCulley.
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