By Tristan Kirk
Scientists are considering an attempt to ressurect the extinct woolly mammoth. But concerns have been raised about the ethics of such a project
The fierce debate over whether to clone a woolly mammoth has been reignited by a fresh attempt to bring the species back from the dead.
South Korean scientists believe the extinct 'Mammuthus' can be brought back to life using the DNA of an extremely well preserved mammoth found in the Siberian snow.
Insung Hwang, a geneticist at Sooam, the South Korean biotech company working on the project, said this week his team think it is an achievable goal, using the fresh blood samples they have recovered.
“We’re trying hard to make this possible within our generation”, he told a Channel 4 documentary team who have been charting the project’s progress.
However, many in the science community oppose the idea of bringing an extinct species back to life.
Dr Tori Herridge, a palaeobiologist and mammoth specialist at the Natural History Museum, described the moment she came face to face with the mammoth, nicknamed Buttercup, as “one of the most incredible experiences of my life”.
“It’s up there with my wedding day”, she enthused.
“The information gleaned from Buttercup’s autopsy about her life and death, and the future discoveries that will come from analyses of her muscles and internal organs, will add to our understanding of these magnificent Ice Age beasts.”
But Dr Herridge said the cloning process would be cruel, and the benefits of creating a living breathing woolly mammoth do not outweigh the ethical problems.
She believes an elephant would have to act as a surrogate, carrying the mammoth for 22 months before giving birth to something that may soon die or damage her in the process.
"The most fundamental step and ethical concern with this kind of procedure is that you need to have an Asian elephant surrogate mum at some point”, she said.
“Cloning a mammoth will require you to experiment on probably many, many Asian elephants."
She added: “I don’t think they are worth it – the reasons just aren’t there.”
Jack Ashby, the manager of Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London, backed her stance on Twitter, adding: “There is no good reason to clone mammoths and many reasons not to, including forcing elephants to carry young.”
A new-born woolly mammoth would likely find itself immediately designated an endangered species, and have to cope with modern environments as well as life in captivity.
According to research, mammoths were inherently social creatures, leaving the new-born mammoth to a potentially lonely existence.
The team in South Korea have accepted any cloning attempt would be a long, drawn out process over many years, and it is not yet clear whether the remains of Buttercup have provided the necessary blood cells.
But a cloned mammoth would add considerably to the understanding of the species that last walked the Earth around 10,000 years ago.
Sir Ian Wilmut, the Edinburgh-based professor behind the world’s first cloned mammal – Dolly the Sheep – believes it is a worthwhile endeavour.
"I think it should be done as long as we can provide great care for the animal”, he said last year.
“If there are reasonable prospects of them being healthy, we should do it. We can learn a lot about them.”
Buttercup was found on Malyi Lyakhovsky Island in May 2013, with three legs, most of her body, and parts of her head and trunk still intact.
She is among a number of recent mammoth discoveries, as parts of the vast snow and ice covered areas are melted through global warming.
Since the discovery of Buttercup, scientists have already learned she lived around 40,000 years ago, gave birth to around eight calves, and was in her fifties when she died.
Buttercup is also the size of an Asian elephant, much smaller than the mammoth’s usual reputation for being massive.
Mr Hwang said several scientific institutes are already working on blood samples to try to find a complete nucleus, including an intact genome, that can be used for cloning.
And he urged for the ethical discussion to begin in earnest.
“There are inherent ethical questions we have to address”, he said.
“That’s why we have to start discussing the implications now.”
The Channel 4 documentary, called Woolly Mammoth: The Autopsy, is due to be shown at 8pm on November 23.