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Monday, 16 April 2012

Resurrecting the Mammoth

Resurrecting the Mammoth
Competing teams intend to bring back the woolly mammoth

Will the woolly mammoth be lumbering back? Japanese scientists 'to resurrect extinct giant from frozen DNA within five years'

It died out around 8,000 years ago… but in just five years the woolly mammoth could soon be walking the Earth again.

Japanese scientists are behind an ambitious project to bring the long-extinct mammal back from the dead.

The revival requires a sample of intact DNA for cloning purposes and an elephant to act as surrogate mother, donating an egg and her womb.

Illustration of herd of mammoths
Coming back to life: This ancient mammoth, extinct 8,000 years ago, will be revived in the next five years through cloning

Taking into account the 600 or so days needed for the pregnancy, the first baby mammoths of the modern age could be born in four to five years.

In recent years, scientists have used samples of hair frozen in the Siberian ice for thousands of years to piece together the mammoth’s genetic code. And DNA preserved in bone has been used to recreate the prehistoric giant’s blood.

But the latest project is far more ambitious.

The Kyoto University researchers are planning an expedition to the Siberian permafrost this summer in search of a flash-frozen specimen still rich in DNA.

Other options include taking a sample of skin or tissue from a carcass already in a research collection, Japanese newpaper Yomiuri Shimbun reports.

Mammoth skeleton
DNA from the mammoth's cells will be injected into an empty egg, taken from an elephant, its closest living relative

A sample just over an inch square could provide all the genetic information needed.

DNA from the mammoth’s cells will be injected into an empty egg, taken from an elephant, its closest living relative.

The egg is then zapped with electricity to trick it into growing and dividing, like a normal embryo. It will then be allowed to mature in the lab for a few days, before being inserted into the womb of an elephant that will act as a surrogate mother, in the hope that she will eventually give birth to a baby mammoth.

The project will build on the success of other Japanese scientists who two years ago created clones of a mouse that had been dead and frozen for 16 years.

Remains of baby mammoth
Study of the baby mammoth may shed light on why the huge creatures that once strode in large herds across Eurasia and North America died out 8,000 years ago

But it will not be plain sailing, with the intricate process fraught with the possibilities of failure, miscarriage and animal suffering.

Project leader: Professor Akira Iritani
Project leader: Professor Akira Iritani

When resurrecting the mouse, more than 1,100 attempts produced just seven healthy clones.

Even if the scientists are successful, the problems don’t end with the birth. Project leader Professor Akira Iritani said: ‘If a cloned embryo can be created, we need to discuss, before transplanting it into the womb, how to breed (the mammoth) and whether to display it to the public.’

Study of the baby mammoth may shed light on why the huge creatures that once strode in large herds across Eurasia and North America died out 8,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age.

Some experts hold that mammoths were hunted to extinction by the species that was to become the planet’s dominant predator – humans.

Others argue that climate change was more to blame, leaving a species adapted for frozen climes ill-equipped to cope with a warming world.

Cloning dinosaurs would be a much more complex task, because their DNA would be at least 65million years old and likely to have broken down.

A woolly mammoth

 Controversial scientist plans to clone a mammoth


South Korean Hwang Woo Suk was long regarded as a cloning pioneer - until he was charged with having faked much of his stem cell research. Now, he is back with a new project: he wants to clone a woolly mammoth.

South Korean researcher and cloning pioneer Hwang Woo Suk hasn't been in the scientific spotlight ever since he claimed to have successfully created human embryonic stem cells by cloning six years ago, and that research turned out to be fake.

Now, the controversial veterinarian and researcher is in the headlines again. He wants to use frozen tissue samples to recreate an animal that last walked the earth some 10,000 years ago: a woolly mammoth.

Hwang Woo Suk and dog Snuppy
Hwang Woo Su successfully cloned Snuppy in 2005

The scientist recently signed an accord to that effect with a university in Russia's Sakha Republic.

Vast areas of the republic are covered in permafrost that has begun to thaw over the years due to climate change, uncovering the well-preserved remains of several mammoths that had lain frozen in the ice for more than 10.000 years.

To clone new life from the remains, Hwang needs an intact cell nucleus that he hopes could contain the animal's entire genetic information. The scientist would then have to replace the nuclei of egg cells from a related species - in this case an Indian elephant - with those taken from the mammoth's cells.

It is possible - in principle. Three years ago, as part of a mammoth cloning project in Japan, researchers there managed to clone a mouse from the cells of a rodent that had been frozen for 16 years. Nothing has been heard of this project since then.

Fragmented DNA

Alex Greenwood, a biologist at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, is skeptical about the mammoth-cloning project. A first look into the microscope may give scientists reason for hope because they can discern contours of cells and even cell nuclei in the mammoth tissue. But the structures are not intact, Greenwood said, "They are frozen imprints of ancient cells."

The biologist has ruled out that the mammoth tissue from Siberia can contain functioning cells. "Some 10,000 years of permafrost are quite different from 16 years in a freezer," he said, referring to the Japanese experiment.

Temperatures are not constant in Siberia, so according to the biologist, the tissue thawed and froze several times over the course of the millennia. That process destroyed all the live cells' microstructures - what DNA is left is fragmented.

"There is no way it can function," Greenwood said.

Genetic puzzle

mammoth baby
The mammoth baby Ljuba was dicovered in 2007

Molecular geneticist Stephan Schuster from Pennsylvania State University agreed that cloning is not the way to recreate a woolly mammoth. But reconstruction might be possible by other means, he added. In 2009, the geneticist and his team successfully reconstructed 70 percent of a mammoth's genetic information. They didn't use cell nuclei but small snippets of genetic material they found on the frozen animals' fur.

The US researchers managed to put the genetic information in the right order, and in just a few years the mammoth genome might be deciphered like that of many other animal, Schuster said. With a complete blueprint on hand, genetic information can be put together bit by bit, the geneticist said.

From bacteria to mammoth

Realistic rendering of bacteria cells;
It's easier to build bacteria than a mammoth's DNA

In 2010, US biologist and genetic researcher Craig Venter was the first to recreate a bacterium's complete genome. Schuster is convinced the same could be done in the case of a woolly mammoth - if the animal's genome weren't more than 10,000 times larger than that of bacteria.

As long as it is not possible to create such a large genome synthetically, scientists have to choose a different approach. According to Schuster, researchers could rebuild a similar genome until it becomes more mammoth-like. The closest related species is the Indian Elephant.

George Church, a genetic researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston, is working on just such a project. His team developed a device that can alter bacteria, a kind of "evolution machine." He said the machine could be used to change bacteria at a basic level so that elephant cells could be turned into mammoth cells.

But even then, science wouldn't actually have created a new mammoth. The genome would have to be transferred to a live cell - the same process used in cloning. Here, too, an Indian elephant cow would be the ovum donor and surrogate mother. Science hasn't reached that point yet, Church said, with a wistful glance at a small stuffed animal mammoth perched on his desk: "But the process is well on its way."

Out of the ice and into the zoo

Schuster said that three years ago, he thought the development absolutely impossible. "Today, I no longer think it is utterly impossible," he said.

But simple cloning like that envisioned by Hwang is not the solution and reconstructing an Ice Age creature is much more complicated, he added.

Author: Michael Lange / db
Editor: Sean Sinico

From http://www.dw.de/dw/article/0,,15812920,00.html


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