12 December 2011

Don't wait for cloned mammoths

Clone a mammoth? Not so fastAlan Boyle, MSNBC: Clone a mammoth?
Not so fastTranslation: InoSMI

Japan reports on the possibility of cloning long-extinct woolly mammoths within five years, but don't count on it.

"Come on, this will never happen. Not in my lifetime," says Webb Miller, a computer science and genomics specialist at Penn State University who helped decipher the genetic code of the woolly mammoth.

Japanese and Russian researchers have been searching for the remains of a suitable woolly mammoth in the Siberian permafrost for many years, and they recently told the Japanese Kyodo news service that they had found, as they hope, a suitable bone marrow sample of a frozen thigh bone found near the village of Batagai in the eastern Russian Republic of Sakha (Yakutia).

They plan to take the nuclei of bone marrow cells, transplant them into elephant eggs and implant cloned embryos into the womb of elephants for maturation. This technology is known for the successful cloning of mammals – from Dolly the sheep to pigs, cats, dogs and monkeys.

The Kyodo news agency says there is a "high probability" that active nuclei can be extracted from frozen bone marrow cells. The group of researchers includes Russian experts from the Yakut Mammoth Museum and Japanese biologists from Kinki University in Osaka Prefecture. According to the agency, it is planned to launch a full-fledged joint research project next year.

Woolly mammoths have not walked the earth for many thousands of years, but the idea of reviving the species seems to have taken over the collective mind. Some people even started talking about financing the creation of a Pleistocene park for mammoths and other animals of the Ice Age.

Miller, however, is not led to this.

"The woolly mammoth's DNA has suffered a lot," he explained. "It's fragmented into very small fractions, and there's a lot of postmortem DNA damage, not just fragmentation. The code is very badly damaged."

Even if the DNA was preserved intact, and the nuclei from mammoth cells were successfully transferred to an elephant egg, the probability of success of cloning animals and, in particular, extinct and almost extinct species, is small. In short, there are many obstacles on the way to a successful pregnancy.

A couple of years ago, scientists managed to obtain a Pyrenean ibex from tissue taken from the last representative of the subspecies in 1999, but the cloned descendant lived only seven minutes. Attempts to clone the Asian bison did not end much better. Australian researchers had to abandon plans to clone the Tasmanian tiger and save it from extinction, although they later succeeded in transferring part of the Tasmanian tiger gene into mouse embryos.

These cases show that there are not so many chances to recreate mammoths. Genetic engineering may eventually produce some kind of "hairy elephant" with mammoth-like characteristics. But to create a creature genetically identical to the giants of the Ice Age? "If someone does that, I'll eat my hat," Miller said. "And I wonder why they did it."

Miller said that studying the DNA of long-extinct species is important, even if these efforts do not lead to resurrection.

"I look from my bell tower and see that 13 thousand years ago there were some really interesting animals there," he reflects. "They're gone, and I'd like to know why." ...To understand, by looking at their genome, which species survived and which did not, and to determine this, that's what interests me."

But if we talk about living, breathing animals, "I personally am more interested in preserving the species that we have," Miller said. "I would like to have tigers live here for a while."

Despite Miller's doubts, the quest to recreate the mammoth may well continue for the next five years or longer. And that's not all. Paleontologist Jack Horner (Jack Horner) is promoting his plan to change chicken DNA to make the inhabitants of the poultry yard more like the dinosaurs from which they originated. Dino-broilers versus woolly mammoths? And what is a good plot for the next series of "Jurassic Park".

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