Monday 16 September 2013

Cloning the Mammoth

A project has been proposed to clone the woolly mammoth, see: Mammoths are an extinct species of elephant that lived in colder climates than their modern cousins and evolved a thick coat of fur to cope with the cold, hence their name. They were very common in many parts of Europe, Asia and North America during the last ice age. They coexisted with Neanderthal and modern humans who hunted them and used their bones for tools and their ivory for decoration and jewellery. When the ice age ended about 12,000 years ago they slowly became extinct. The last ones died more recently than you might think, only 1600 BC on Wrangel Island off the northern coast of Siberia. Because many of them died in very cold climates their bodies have been preserved in ice and frozen soil. In June it was announced that scientists had discovered a particularly intact specimen in the polar regions of Russia; its liquid blood was found still inside the body and the scientists have managed to extract its DNA. This is of course very interesting for research, but some scientists want to apply that research into resurrecting the animal by cloning it.

Cloning is a technique of generating a living organism by copying its genetic pattern. This can sometimes happen naturally as in asexual reproduction or the case of identical twins, but it can now be done artificially by inserting the nucleus of a cell into an ovum and then allowing it to grow into an embryo and baby in the womb of a similar animal. This baby would not be the offspring of the mothering animal, but would be the identical twin of the organism the original cell nucleus came from. This has now been done successfully with many species of modern animals, from frogs, to rats to water buffalo. The first mammal to be cloned was Dolly the sheep in 1996. Many experts claim cloning has a lot of benefits, like saving endangered species from extinction. But this is the first time it’s ever been suggested that an extinct animal be cloned, mostly because the DNA of extinct species is almost non-existent by definition, until now. What the project scientists want to do is place the nucleus of one of the cells from the mammoth body into the ovum of a modern elephant and then let the baby be born to that elephant mother. If this is done enough times there might be enough mammoths for a breeding population; and the Russians already have plans to set them free in one of their national parks.

On one level this idea sounds very appealing, the reintroduction of a creature that died out thousands of years ago; one that many people would be curious to see, including myself. However there are problems associated with this project, both practical and ethical. Firstly, clones are known to suffer from general poor health. Dolly herself was very sickly her whole short life. We could be looking at a major animal cruelty issue here. Another problem, particularly with recreating a mammoth, is that it may not be accepted by other elephants socially. It might even be rejected by its host, which as far as it is concerned is its mother. Elephants are extremely emotional and sensitive creatures as well as highly intelligent. It would be mental agony for a young mammoth to be turned away by its companions to live a life alone. I also am personally much more concerned with the well-being of extant members of the zoological family Elephantidae, which over the ages has included over a hundred species. Today only two species remain, the Asian and African elephants. Both those creatures are endangered from excessive hunting by poachers and the destruction of their natural habitat. It would be a tragedy beyond comprehension if the last of the world’s elephants, these enormous, gentle and beautiful creatures, became as extinct as their temperate cousins. The Mammoth Cloning Project 2013 must cost a lot of money. Perhaps those funds would be better spent on one of the charities trying to save modern elephants from being wiped out, see:

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