The Science of Sustainability

Mammoth Resurrection

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I had always thought that bringing back an extinct animal like the mammoth was impossible using today's techniques. I may have been wrong.

Maybe a clone of this guy will wander the Earth one day.A new study shows that scientists can clone a mouse that has been dead and frozen for 16 years. If they can apply what they've learned to a mammoth that has been dead and frozen for over 10,000 years, then maybe my kids can ride a mammoth one day. Or at least my grandkids can.

You Need More than DNA to Clone

Cloning isn't as simple as was shown in Jurassic Park. You can't take DNA and make a clone from it. Instead, you need an intact nucleus. And ideally, an intact nucleus in an intact cell.

The nucleus is where DNA is kept in our cells. The DNA is stored and packaged there in a way that only Mother Nature can do (for now). We can’t take our 6 feet of DNA and cram it into the tiny space of the nucleus.

Cloning 101.As I said, right now cloning uses intact cells. Here's how it works:

1) Take a cell from the animal to be cloned
2) Remove the nucleus from an egg (this is called an enucleated egg)
3) Fuse the two cells and let it divide a few times in a Petri dish
4) Implant the growing embryo into a surrogate mother
5) If everything goes well, a clone is born

This procedure requires living intact cells to be used. The problem with a frozen animal cell is that it is dead and ice crystals have torn it apart. It is not possible to fuse a beat up dead cell with an enucleated egg.

Cloning Using Frozen Cells

What the researchers in this new study did was change the protocol a bit. Instead of fusing two cells, they harvested nuclei from the frozen cells and injected them directly into the enucleated egg.

When they tried to clone the mouse that had been frozen for 16 years this way, it didn't work. But they managed to get 4 clones by adding an extra step. What they did was to make embryonic stem (ES) cells from the frozen mouse and use those cells to make a clone.

Basically they cloned the mouse but then instead of putting the embryo into a surrogate mother, they harvested its ES cells. Then they used the nuclei from these cells to create a clone in the usual way.

So we can now clone a long frozen mouse. The next step will be to try to clone an extinct animal like a mammoth.

Cloning a Mammoth is Trickier than a Mouse

Mammoth cloning will be no walk in the park. First off, we don’t have any mammoth eggs or cells to use. We'll have to use elephant ones. Hopefully, elephant eggs and/or cells will be compatible with a mammoth's nucleus. ( But there is some concern they they might not be compatible.)

Second, elephants are a lot harder to work with than mice. The experiments in this study used thousands of eggs to get a few clones. I don’t know enough about elephant biology but it seems like you'd need a lot of elephants to get that many eggs.

But this is definitely the first step in resurrecting long dead animals. For now we'll have to focus on the frozen ones. Maybe in the future researchers can figure out how to clone animals stored in formaldehyde. Or from pelts. Then we can start reviving species we humans have managed to kill off over the years.

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Category: Biology, Partners

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Dr. Barry Starr

About the Author ()

Dr. Barry Starr is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • http://twitchtoo.com twitch

    i'm no scientist, just a numbers guy. picture the world in simple zeros and ones. if the scientists of the world can simplify the basics of living cells to zeros and ones, cloning will be a simple process of programming and the programmers of the world will become creators. imagine coding yourself a new heart, how about some new eyes? there's definitely a gap between talking about it and being able to do it but realistically humans will go extinct looking for the ability to become creators.

  • http://www.thetech.org/genetics/index.php Barry Starr

    The programming that creates us is incredibly complex. I am no programmer but I imagine that the instructions coded for in a cell are many orders of magnitude beyond any programs out there now. It will be a very long time before we can make a heart from scratch.

    We may be able to tweak the instructions of a stem cell in the right way to make a heart from that single cell but to create one de novo would be impossible for us right now.

  • http://www.thetech.org/genetics/index.php Barry Starr

    For anyone interested, scientists have just published what the DNA of a mammoth looks like (see http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v456/n7220/full/456330a.html). Looks like they were pretty inbred and very similar to modern elephants.

  • Barry

    A step closer…scientists have some pretty good bone marrow that they may be able to use for cloning. http://news.discovery.com/animals/woolly-mammoth-cloned-111205.html