Thursday, 31 March 2011

Bring the hair

I've said it before and I'll say it again. I want a mammoth. The Japanese team at Osaka's Kinki University made the news again this week. They hope to 'make' a mammoth within the next few years. They started the project a while ago, but had to abandon the work they had done on skin samples as they found the cell damage from ice was too advanced. Scientists at another Japanese university recently had success in cloning a mouse from frozen cells giving the Kinki team fresh hope. That aside, cloning techniques with other animals have advanced since then and the group hope a new find on their summer trip to Siberia will provide material in viable condition. Global warming has resulted in more mammoth finds in Siberia and the problem in finding one is mostly one of time and transportation.

The process involves the insertion of mammoth cells into elephant eggs with their own nucleus removed, to produce an embryo which is then implanted into an elephant to carry to birth. The optimism of the Kinki bunch is all very well, but significant problems lie ahead. Even if they find their material (and they may yet turn to previous finds in the hands of Russian academic bodies) and it's in decent shape, the percentage of prepared elephant eggs that turn out to be usable is still very low. While the numbers involved still make the project look like something of a long shot, it's a step along the way. I think at some point in the near future a mammoth will be born for the first time in nearly four thousand years.

There are some ethical considerations. Let's leave aside the negligibly weak 'playing god' argument and focus on the fuzzy little bundle of joy itself. If and when it's born, it'll be all alone. That's a fairly bleak thought, and brings to mind the footage of the last thylacine from the Australian zoo in the 30s. So if it's to be done, I think there should be more than one - and it's pretty safe to assume there will be. Having sunk so much time and effort into the campaign so far, it would be weird to stop at one, barring disaster. Another concern that has been raised is the spectre of commercialism. Is this being done for scientific or financial reasons? Let's be generous and say primarily the former, but it's unrealistic to discount the pull and potential of the latter. Make the most of it, I'd say - go the whole hog and make a Jurassic Park equivalent. Seems to be their ultimate intention, after looking into a bit more - Pleistocene Park. Mammoths and mastodons, woolly rhinos, cave bears, aurochs, smilodons, Irish elk - the works. Revenues can fund further research. And I get to see the hairy beasts.

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