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A Real Live Mammoth in 5 Years?

by Jamie Meikle

Some of you may have noticed that I tend to be a little wary of scientific developments. So imagine my reaction when I heard that Russian and Japanese scientists were planning to use cloning techniques to bring the woolly mammoth back to life. Was it shock, horror, disbelief, fear or righteous wrath? No my friends, it was a thousand mile gaze and a single word… ‘cool’.

Admittedly there are serious issues concerning things like: armies of mammoths sweeping over the world; our right to tamper with evolution; disruption to the ecosystem and blah, blah, blah… Sorry I tuned out there: my mind wandered inward to enjoy a show reel of awesome mammoth images running through my head.

At the end of the day there is one over-riding factor which settles the argument over whether mammoths should be brought back: think of the cool stuff you could do with them!

You could:

Ride one to work in the morning and be the envy of all you friends.
Teach several of them to play a thundering trumpet harmony with their trunks.
Crush the evil Titanboa. – http://nerdinsider.com/2011/11/25/they-did-not-just-go-out-and-build-a-giant-robot-snake/
Develop a new sport: Extreme polo.
Make a furry hat.
Eat them. Admit it, the thought: ‘I wonder what a mammoth steak would taste like’, popped into your head.
Ride one into battle against the mechanical hordes of those damned fool robot builders.
Pull up next to someone riding an elephant and look smug.

The visionary scientists involved are aiming to have given birth (not personally) to a baby mammoth within five years. So, with all the wonderful cool mammoth related activities at stake, just how exactly do they plan to bring these mega-mammals back?

It seems that for some time scientists have been waiting to get their hands on loads of really well preserved mammoth cells. Now they reckon they have them courtesy of some excellent bone marrow discovered in August 2011.

The plan is all very technical and sciency, but it boils down to sticking some mammoth DNA into an egg from another animal, probably an elephant or a cow, then popping it into the beast to bake. Wey-hey, sounds easy doesn’t it? Unfortunately it’s not, there are some major problems to hurdle before we’re seeing the beasts in the flesh:

Finding a suitable surrogate. Cows are actually the mammoth’s closest surviving relative, but almost certainly wouldn’t be large enough to carry a baby mammoth to term. Elephants are the next best match, but even they might not be large enough.
Getting enough viable cells. The bone marrow is very promising, but even if it’s in really good condition only 0.1% of the cells are likely to be viable.
Cloning has a low success rate of around 1%. This means that, on average, they’d succeed once from 100 attempts.
The first successful attempt would actually be some weird hybrid thing, hopefully half-elephant and not half-cow. While undoubtedly funny, a mooing mammoth would kill the appeal a little. Anyway, once the first generation had been born they could do some genetic tinkering and selective breeding with the goal of eventually having a pure mammoth.

But, let’s face it, they’re bound to succeed. Just because it’s about bloody time science gave us something awesomely cool that doesn’t have a screen.

Viva la mammoth!

Do you think they’ll succeed? Is it right for them to try? What would you do with a pet mammoth? Let us know in the Comments Box below.

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