In March, a group of South Korean and Russian scientists working through the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation announced that they were actively working on cloning a Woolly Mammoth. Continuing advances in genetic research mean scientists may be closer than ever to realizing this strange dream. The Sooam group is working with DNA extracted from the amazingly well preserved Mammoth that was recovered in 2013 on the Siberian island of Maly Lyakhovsky. While this Mammoth, nicknamed “Buttercup,” was being excavated from the permafrost, a thick, red, fluid flowed out of its abdomen. This fluid contained some of the best-preserved genetic material yet recovered from an extinct species.
In the meantime, the Smithsonian Museum’s IMAX movie, Titans of the Ice Age, portrays mammoths as real as a living elephant roaming their natural Arctic environment. Interestingly, these ever-more realistic images, produced by state-of-the-art computer animation, enter the public psyche just as scientists close in on the re-creation of a living mammoth. Cloning living animals is now a technically reliable procedure. With such “de-extinction” thought to be inevitable, some think the recreation of many extinct creatures, such as the passenger pigeon or the Tasmanian tiger is a good thing. Others are not so sure.
Jurassic Park, the movie, popularized and even sensationalized the idea of recreating pre-historic creatures from DNA. Through such movies and books, the science of genetic manipulation has found its way into mainstream imagination. There have been some successes. In July 1996, Dolly the sheep was created from three mothers (one provided the egg, another the DNA, and a third carried the cloned embryo to term). Dolly was the first clone created from a cell taken from an adult animal, where the cell nucleus was injected into an unfertilized egg that was then transplanted into a surrogate womb and brought to term. We have come a long way since Dolly.
In the movie Jurassic Park, scientists were shown extracting a minute amount of DNA from the blood of a mosquito, which had been preserved in amber since the Jurassic period 175 million years ago. In real life, however, the DNA in living cells quickly breaks down once the cell dies, making the possibility of actually finding such very ancient DNA highly unlikely. The chances of finding an intact strand of DNA in Jurassic blood is practically non-existent. So far, all successful cloning has been done with DNA harvested from living cells with intact genetic material.
Nevertheless, some scientists are combining, splicing, and manipulating genes for use in a myriad of different applications. In fact, there seems to be virtually no limit to the possible ways DNA can be manipulated. But does the fact that we can do something, mean we should?
The leader of the Sooam research team, Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk, is the controversial Korean cloning scientist who was the focus of a scandal in 2006 involving fraudulent research using human stem cells. He has successfully created the world’s first cloned dog and several coyotes. Dr. Woo-Suk claims that, for $100,000, his team will clone your dog for you, and, he says, they can clone a mammoth, too. He may be right. Many scientists now believe there is enough intact genetic material from a Wooly Mammoth to be able to bring one back to life. The project is a huge undertaking with many hurdles yet to cross but the result could, at least, resemble an extinct mammoth.
In 2003, a team of Spanish and French scientists successfully cloned the extinct Pyrenean Ibex. The team used tissue taken from the last living Ibex, which had been cryopreserved in nitrogen. The effort turned out to be extremely difficult. Of the 285 embryos reconstructed, 57 were implanted into 12 ibex-goat hybrids, but only seven of these animals became pregnant. Six of these pregnancies ended in miscarriages. One clone was born alive, through cesarean section, only to die ten minutes later due to physical defects in the lungs. It turns out that DNA taken from an older animal makes the cloning task much harder. Frozen DNA still degrades and becomes unreliable. This is a major technical hurdle when you consider that the best mammoth DNA we have so far is from a 50-year-old mammoth that died 40,000 years ago.
The Ibex experiments also illustrate some of the ethical difficulties. There are inevitably a large number of birth defects and abnormalities produced. The ibex born with such a major birth defect certainly suffered for its entire, albeit shortened, life. The movie Alien Resurrection, though obviously dramatized for the shock effect, portrayed the grotesque results that could manifest in clones created from incomplete or improperly constructed DNA. Concern about abnormalities and the suffering involved is partly why, in 2005, the UN general assembly adopted a resolution to ban human cloning. That ban, though, hasn’t stopped research on cloning every other kind of creature.
Today, thanks, apparently, to global warming, more and more woolly mammoths are being discovered as they melt out of the Siberian permafrost. When “Buttercup’s” carcass was uncovered, it was oozing a red liquid and the muscle tissue was still pink. This is the closest thing to intact cells with DNA ever found in an ancient, extinct animal carcass. Insung Hwang, one of the researchers who gathered the mammoth DNA from Siberia said, “If we dream about it, the ideal case would be finding a viable cell, a cell that’s alive.” If the Sooam researchers do find such a cell, they could coax it to produce millions of cells. These could be reprogrammed to grow into embryos, which could then be implanted in surrogate elephants, the mammoth’s closest living relatives. This procedure—we’ll call it plan A—is already being done with living animals. Sooam claims you can clone your dog if you preserve living cells soon enough after its death.
Researchers also have a plan B for cloning the mammoth. If only an intact nucleus is found, the nucleus would then be transferred into an elephant egg that has had its nucleus removed. If the DNA is functional, it will take over the egg and start dividing. This egg would then have to be planted into an elephant’s womb. The difficulty with this model is that no one has yet successfully extracted a viable egg from an elephant, let alone implanted one. Also, elephants have a 22-month gestation period, which slows the rate at which attempts can be made. Scientists would be working with a highly intelligent animal that is itself, already threatened—one which doesn’t do well in captivity.
Plan C—even more complex—involves piecing together the DNA and then combining it with living DNA from a similar species. Attempts of this sort are being undertaken to clone the passenger pigeon. As more and more mammoth DNA is recovered and sequenced, it can be compared to the closest living relative, which in this case would be the Asian elephant. Then, only bits and pieces of mammoth DNA would need to be identified and correlated to elephant DNA. Harvard geneticist George Church is working on implementing plan C with mammoths. He claims to have successfully copied genes from frozen woolly mammoths into the genome of the Asian elephant. Church’s team believes they have located specific genes that make the mammoth unique, such as those for smaller ears, subcutaneous fat, and hair length and color. This advance, in itself, is exceptional as it represents the first time in 4000 years that some mammoth genes have been functionally alive.
Until the ethical and practical concerns of implanting modified embryos into living elephants are addressed, Church’s team proposes to create hybrid elephant/mammoth embryos that can be grown in artificial wombs. In this artificial setting, which is still hypothetical, researchers expect to see if they have correctly identified the particular genes that make the mammoth unique. Once these parts are known, they could be programmed into a viable nucleus. Addressing how to actually impregnate an elephant with a mammoth/elephant hybrid would have to come later.
Animals created through this method of piecing together mammoth characteristics with living elephant DNA wouldn’t truly give us mammoths from the past, but rather a kind of hybrid that has the appearance and characteristics of a mammoth. Public conscience, it is thought, will thus be appeased. As was seen in the Ibex project, this process may take numerous attempts. What kinds of psychological stress will this put on the elephants and the clones that survive? These are highly intelligent animals and the logistics of shifting the baby mammoths from a research laboratory to a living environment would be extremely challenging. Then, once successful, not one, but many mammoths would have to be created to actually create a viable herd. These animals would then have to be given a protected environment where they could live in peace.
Siberia in the time of the mammoths was a landscape of grassy steppes. Sergey Zimov, a Russian ecologist believes the mammoths and other large herbivores maintained the grassland by breaking up the soil and fertilizing it with their manure. Dr. Church suggests that reintroducing a successful mammoth hybrid to the tundra regions could help bring back a “healthier” tundra ecosystem. This, however, would pose the problem of what the mammoths would eat in the existing tundra before the return of grasses. Dr. Church also believes that these animals might have a better chance at survival than their relatives in Africa and might one day be the last surviving elephants.
Critics of de-extinction believe that all these efforts will hinder efforts at preservation and conservation of living species that are already threatened with extinction. This concern certainly applies to the Asian elephant. Opponents say that the genetic research should be put into finding ways for living elephants to survive. If a species is successfully cloned, people might conclude that any species could thus be brought back to life. Perhaps humanity would then be less concerned about the current destruction of so many species. There is also the issue of the lack of habitat for so many species. Isolating a special environment for mammoths and changing the tundra would further stress other currently threatened species.
Cloning brings up many legal issues, as well. Any creature thus created would, at this point, be a commodity, patented and owned by the corporation that fabricated it. This means that any successful mammoths might exist on a nature preserve much like the isolated island in the Jurassic Park series, an attraction for tourists, and owned by a corporation. They certainly wouldn’t be truly wild creatures. On the positive side, this might be the only way to keep poachers from killing them for their ivory.
The lack of long-range planning reminds us of other technologies humans have developed; open-pit mining, the destruction of watersheds from heavy metals, the genetic engineering of crops and the unknown effects these compounds are having on people. As humans we feel entitled to do what we want, without fully understanding the consequences. We put ourselves in the petri dish and see if we survive the results. We learned that asbestos is toxic to humans only after 50 years of industrial use and perhaps as many as half a million deaths in the U.S. alone.
Since the first cloning experiments, there have been groups expressing concern about the dangers of this kind of research. Even though groups of scientists have asked for a moratorium on research until we know the implications, the research continues. Popular opinion apparently favors seeing cute baby mammoths taking their first steps and becoming full-grown adults with tusks, walking out of IMAX movies into Siberian landscapes. The research “for the sake of science” continues, as does the controversy.
Scientists around the world are now awaiting the results of a Chinese study that would mark the first time DNA in a human embryo has been modified in a way that would carry into future generations. Although the embryos would, it is claimed, be for study only, and are not intended for implantation, the research would mark a dubious milestone: the first time human DNA had been altered so substantially that it would change the “germ line”—the eggs or sperm of any child produced from the embryo.
In the end, we will likely have cloned genes in our own bodies, long before we know if it’s a good idea. Perhaps we already do! We already have the genetically modified fish that you can buy at the tropical fish store. If we can imagine recreating extinct animals for everyday use, what’s to stop us from doing it? The view by many seems to be that we can do this and that we should. As with any issue, it can be marketed as something ethically guided, useful to nature and the earth, and a giving back to the world for the harms we’ve done. Perhaps we can “save” one creature, and restore the tundra while we’re destroying thousands of species every year as a result of rainforest deforestation.
If we can can de-extinct animals, where do we draw the line? Enough Neanderthal DNA has been recovered that some scientists believe it’s only a matter of time before we can clone a Neanderthal. (“Neanderthals and Civilization,” AR #101) Again, the question arises: what will we really create? A Chimera that is some kind of blend between Neanderthal and homo sapiens that lives as a human being in our modern world?
Will we go from proving we can successfully create these kinds of creatures to being able to clone humans successfully? Mark Hunt, a former member of the West Virginia legislature has been on a mission for over 15 years to clone his dead son. There’s a group of scientists who are part of the Raelian movement who believe it can be done. The group met with agents from the FDA and agreed not to pursue their research in the U.S. Yet, in all likelihood, this research is already being done somewhere in the world.
It will be interesting, if not frightening, to see how this plays out. Will there be a public outcry when video of deformed creatures or even human babies is discovered? Will Neanderthal babies be deemed to have the same rights as humans and will their replication be bogged down in legal battles?
It’s not that hard to imagine a time when people can choose to clone themselves for medical uses, or when parents will be able to design the traits they want in their children. Perhaps we will be able to create a super powered human society with no gluten intolerance or susceptibility to UV radiation. For now, the popular view seems to favor more cloning research, and seeing just what we can do.
We already live in the realm of science fiction movies. Will our creation, like Jurassic Park, turn out to be a horror movie?
Patrick Marsolek is a writer, dancer, facilitator, clinical hypnotherapist and the director of Inner Workings Resources. He is the author of Transform Yourself: A Self-hypnosis Manual and A Joyful Intuition. See www.PatrickMarsolek.com for more information.