Welcome to Pleistocene Park: Russian scientists say they have a ‘high chance’ of cloning a woolly mammoth

BY Zachary Treu  March 14, 2014 at 2:02 PM EST
Scientists remain hopeful that a woolly mammoth may someday be cloned. Photo by Flickr user Mark Ryan

Scientists remain hopeful that a woolly mammoth may someday be cloned. Photo by Flickr user Mark Ryan

Woolly mammoth blood and tissue discovered in Siberia in 2013 will give scientists “a high chance” to clone the prehistoric animal, a medical anthropologist told the English-language Siberian Times this week.

Paleontologists discovered the carcass of a female woolly mammoth on the Lyakhovsky Islands in northeastern Russia last May, and the well-preserved nature of the remains immediately sparked speculation that the creature could potentially be cloned. An autopsy performed at Russia’s North-Eastern Federal University is expected to conclude on Saturday, according to The Siberian Times, and some scientists with knowledge of the work are rekindling the notion that the beast could be reborn.

“The data we are about to receive will give us a high chance to clone the mammoth,” said Radik Khayrullin, vice president of the Russian Association of Medical Anthropologists.

He clarified that the new animal would be “different … to the one living 43,000 years ago.” If such an experiment is to be done, scientists would have to breed the DNA from the mammoth with that of its closest living relative, the elephant.

Last September, Semyon Grigoryev of Yakutsk’s Mammoth Museum, part of the team working with the mammoth’s remains, downplayed the notion of the woolly mammoth returning sometime in the near future.

“Everybody is talking about cloning, but we should understand that it is a very complicated task,” he said. “The evolutionary path of the mammoth and the elephant diverged a long time ago. So even if we could get a ‘living cell,’ we need to have a special method of cloning.

“[W]e have a unique opportunity to understand how the mammoth’s blood system worked, its muscles and the trunk. Of course, we are engaged primarily in fundamental science. … Maybe our findings will be used by applied science, but now it is early to think of it. And I repeat once again that cloning – despite our discovery, it is a very distant prospect, involving years and decades of work.”

In the meantime, many have been skeptical about these “woolly claims” since the discovery was first announced last year.

The results of the work on the carcass are expected to be announced at a conference in Greece this May, according to The Siberian Times.