Pin It

How to resurrect a woolly mammoth

The Japanese scientist that wants to make elephants give birth to their 10,000 year old cousins and make extinction extinct

Under Dark Matter, Founder of Monolith Magazine Lore Oxford discusses fringe science and the paranormal every month.

The resurrection of long-‐extinct beasts is something of a fearful prospect. Flashbacks of Jurassic Park scenes loom, where rampant dinosaurs chase children through kitchens and overturn cars, as overambitious scientists nurture an affection for hindsight. Yet the science itself — the prospect of achieving what was previously impossible by dancing through loopholes in the laws of nature — would be a commendable feat.

Woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) are believed to have been burdened with the inconvenience of extinction at the end of the Pleistocene ice age, more than 10,000 years ago. Built similarly to elephants, with slight evolutionary adaptations: small ears and a thick coat of fur to protect from the cold, they often grew to more than 10 feet tall. Due to the discovery of numerous carcasses in Alaska and Siberia over recent years, woolly mammoths have become one of the World’s most studied prehistoric species.

In 2008, Japanese scientists successfully birthed clones of a mouse, which had been frozen 16 years previously: a pioneering breakthrough. By injecting nuclei extracted from the dead cells into unfertilized mouse eggs, embryos were created. Since frozen cells are subject to deterioration over time, geneticists had to undertake several complicated processes to produce lines of embryonic stem cells. Once thawed out, cells from the frozen animal could continue to develop into living, breathing clones. This was one of the first successful attempts at cloning an animal, where it was not necessary for the cell membrane to be intact. This spurred research into potentially endless possibilities: not only the extravagant prospect of raising ancient creatures like the woolly mammoth from the grave, but for the potential to save species currently on the brink of extinction.

There have been a number of experiments working towards the revival of the woolly mammoth since, and 2012 has proven to be the most fruitful year so far. Akira Iritani, a professor at Kyoto University, announced plans for an excursion to Siberia in search of mammoth tissue samples earlier this year. He intends to use methods similar to the aforementioned mouse experiment, injecting DNA from previously frozen tissue into the unfertilized egg of a surrogate Indian Elephant.

In another instance, Russian explorers struck a deal with a South Korean biotechnology company to contribute well-­‐preserved mammoth bone marrow to further experimentation. Combined with a number of discoveries of notably well – preserved carcasses, including a herd of seven of the gargantuan creatures in June and an excavation of 30,000-year­‐old remains at the end of August, the woolly mammoth could be lumbering around the corner in the near future.

If successful, the repercussions could be revolutionary. Resurrection is one thing, but consider indirect time travel or immortality? If, with necessary advancements, frozen mammals could eventually be cloned and reborn at the twitch of a test tube, the prospect of witnessing the future first hand could alter the human perspective of life altogether. 

Lore Oxford is a London-based writer and editor. She publishes Monolith Magazine, and writes for Dazed about fringe science

Cover Image Tommy Nease