Spielberg’s 1993 rendition of the novel Jurassic Park captured the world’s attention and exposed our imagination to the idea of de-extinction. Innovations in genetic technology and a huge leap in our understanding has brought this science fiction closer to reality. Pleistocene Park (Figure1) in the north east of Siberia is trying to revert the existing desolate ecosystem back to the organism rich landscape it once was. The Park has grown in size since their establishment in 1996 and they have already successfully introduced reindeer, bison and oxen but they are missing the key protagonist for their Mammoth Steppe restoration[1,2,3].. It is hoped that Mammoths could be cloned from DNA found in ancient remains and then released back into the wild.
The idea is to clone a mammoth in the same way that dolly the sheep was cloned in 1997; via somatic cell nuclear transfer(SCNT)[1,6]. This is where scientists take DNA from a normal cell and place it into an empty female egg (Figure2). Proteins in the egg then reprogram the DNA from its normal restricted format to a more accessible format. Like opening a closed book this reveals information and unlocks the instructions needed to form an embryo. The egg with its newly unlocked DNA is implanted into a surrogate mother who can then carry the embryo through to birth. Unfortunately this reprogramming is not very efficient and leads to many complications and few successful clones. These problems have been reiterated in the attempted revival of the bucardo; an extinct goat. After hundreds of tries only one goat was successfully delivered via caesarean section. Despite being a perfect clone the bucardo’s return to earth lasted merely a few minutes before its lungs failed.
For SCNT to work an intact genome is required. This means that we need to find a mammoth cell containing the entire library of DNA with no damage. This is an extremely challenging task as DNA breaks down and loses its integrity with time[1,4]. Due to the permafrost melting more mammoth remains are being found and one of the most recent finds was extremely well preserved with muscle, hair and even blood (Figure3)[4,5]. Despite this promising specimen the genome remains elusive but some believe there is an alternative solution. It has been proposed that filling in the gaps of the mammoth genome with DNA from its closest modern day relative, the Asian elephant, you could produce an enhanced hybrid. It sounds like simple patchwork but is extremely complex and debatable as to whether a viable organism could be produced[1,10].
Resurrecting Mammoths or other extinct animals may be possible in the future but is this endeavour wise? Many with religious backgrounds would argue against de-extinction believing it is “playing God” and perverting nature. They believe environmental solutions to conservation are the ideal response and this biological manipulation is morally wrong and against a higher power’s intentions . Yet many do not see such biological interference as categorically immoral and the “playing God” argument may not have strength with those of different cultural backgrounds. Some believe that it is not how life is created that should be morally questioned but its ability to fit in.
When ‘alien’ species are introduced to new habitats they can have a detrimental effect on the ecosystem as seen with escaped boa-constrictors in the everglades, USA. These worries can be translated to introducing an extinct species to the wild. Food webs are often disrupted in nature by migration, alien invasion and extinctions yet they always seem to endure. Natures ‘balance’ is dynamic, it adapts and moves forward. Mammoths would certainly be at home with little ecological collateral in Pleistocene Park as the same plants still dominate this habitat.
One of the biggest concerns with any de-extinction is the welfare of the organism in question. Inefficient SCNT results in deaths to surrogates as well as newborns and this fact alone is enough for some to deem the science not worth it. Mammoths may be susceptible to modern diseases even harbour unknown pathogens. In order to fully understand the mammoths’ requirements they would be studied before being released into the wild and this may cause unfair distress. Mammoths are social creatures and solitary production for entertainment would be widely regarded as unacceptable. Many that oppose zoos for their exploits of animals as attractions will not consent to such uses of mammoths. However the underling curiosity and wonderment of seeing a real life mammoth remains a strong motif for their production.
Man played a significant role in the extinction of the Mammoth and if we had the technology to bring it back would this not mean we had a moral obligation to do so? Allocating resources for de-extinction instead of species protection is controversial but the technology could enable development of more powerful conservation tools.
- ROAST, A. 2013. De-extinction: Mammoth prospect, or just wooly?. BBC NEWS Science & Environment. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23602142 (Accessed 21/2/14)
- KRONBERG, D. 2012. Pleistocene Park and the North-East Scientific Station. NESS &Pleistocene Park. http://www.pleistocenepark.ru/en/ (Accessed 21/2/14)
- KRONBERG, D. 2012. Scientific Background. NESS &Pleistocene Park. http://www.pleistocenepark.ru/en/background/ (Accessed 21/2/14)
- McKIE, R. 2013. The quest is to clone a mammoth. The question is: should we do it? The Guardian, The Observer. http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/jul/14/wooly-mammoth-extinct-cloning-dna (Accessed 21/2/14)
- WONG, K. 2013. Fact-Checking a Frozen Mammoth.Scientific American, 309,19-19.
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- WILMUT, I., BEAUJEAN, N., DE SOUSA, P. A., DINNYES, A., KING, T. J., PATERSON, L. A., WELLS, D. N. & YOUNG, L. E. 2002. Somatic cell nuclear transfer.Nature, 419, 583-586.
- FOLCH, J., COCERO, M. J., CHESNE, P., ALABART, J. L., DOMINGUEZ, V., COGNIE, Y., ROCHE, A., FERNANDEZ-ARIAS, A., MARTI, J. I., SANCHEZ, P., ECHEGOYEN, E., BECKERS, J. F., BONASTRE, A. S. & VIGNON, X. 2009. First birth of an animal from an extinct subspecies (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) by cloning.Theriogenology, 71, 1026-1034.
- CHURCH, G. 2013. Please Reanimate Reviving mammoths and other extinct creatures is a good idea.Scientific American, 309, 12-12.
- SHERKOW, J. S. & GREELY, H. T. 2013. What If Extinction Is Not Forever?Science,340, 32-33.
- BBC RELIGION & ETHICS. 2013. Should cloned mammoths roam the Earth?BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/23547664 (Accessed 21/2/14)
- DOUGLAS, T., POWELL, R. & SAVULESCU, J. 2013. Is the creation of artificial life morally significant?Studies in history and philosophy of biological and biomedical sciences, 44, 688-96.
- REED, B. & RODDA, G. 2014. Giant Constrictor Snakes in Florida: A Sizeable Research Challenge. USGS Fort Collins Sceince Centre. http://www.fort.usgs.gov/FLConstrictors/ (Accessed 22/2/14)
- ANIMALS INJUSTICE. 2008. Animal rights laws in QLD, Animal testing. Animals Injustice. http://animalinjustice.wordpress.com/ (Accessed 22/2/14)
Figure1: Adaptation by LUKE WEBSTER using two images:
LEWIS, M. 2012. Pleistocene Park: The Regeneration of the Mammoth Steppe? GeoCurrents. http://www.geocurrents.info/place/russia-ukraine-and-caucasus/siberia/pleistocene-park-the-regeneration-of-the-mammoth-steppe (Accessed 23/2/14)
KRONBERG, D. 2012. Pleistocene Park Photo Gallery. NESS & Pleistocene Park.http://www.pleistocenepark.ru/en/photo/1/ (Accessed 23/2/14)
Figure2: Created and illustrated by LUKE WEBSTER
Figure3: NOGI, K.2013. Frozen remains of woolly mammoth present cloning possibilities. Examiner.com http://www.examiner.com/article/frozen-remains-of-woolly-mammoth-present-cloning-possibilities (Accessed 23/2/14)