Chief Science Correspondent
Scientists may be one step closer to cloning the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), NY Daily News reported. However, the ethics of resurrecting this long-extinct species remain under debate.
The discovery of one woolly mammoth has raised international interest due to the almost perfect preservation of the tissues. The 40,000-year-old adult female woolly mammoth, nicknamed "Buttercup" by scientists, was discovered frozen in northern Siberia in May 2013. The Smithsonian Channel will air a one-hour special on Buttercup's autopsy on November 29, according to Monsters & Critics.
Buttercup is not the first woolly mammoth to be uncovered. Scientists reported the discovery of two female baby Woolly mammoths, Lyuba (and Khroma in 2007 and 2009, respectively. In 2010, scientists uncovered the first mostly intact brain of Yuka, a 39,000-year-old mammoth.
The discovery of Buttercup has been so monumental for scientists because her body were so well preserved, with three legs, along with the head and the truck, intact. Scientists have been able to recover tissues from several of Buttercup's internal organs, along with samples of blood-derived fluid.
Researchers hope to recover a cell with an intact nucleus, which would provide the total sequence of the mammoth's genome. In addition to yielding a great amount of information on the species' evolutionary history, a genome sequence could allow scientists to potentially clone Buttercup by culturing mammoth cells in vitro and implanting the embryo in an elephant host.
Alternatively, as outlined by Live Science, scientists could modify the mammoth genome to more closely resemble to Asian elephant and insert the modified DNA in the elephant's germ (sex) cells. The elephant would give birth to an elephant-mammoth hybrid. Scientists would then cross the two hybrids to ultimately create an organism that could, in theory, closely resemble the mammoth.
The cloning of this species raises several ethical concerns. many scientists have pointed out that the Asian elephant would have to be used a surrogate mother. Nothing in science is ever perfect, so this experiment would likely take several attempts before yielding successful results. Cloning the mammoth could result in the death of many elephant "specimens." It is crucial that these animals not be sacrificed unnecessarily.
"I don't think they they are worth it," said paleobiologist and mammoth anatomy expert Terri Herridge, regarding the risky endeavor to clone the mammoth. "The reasons just aren't there."
The Asian elephant is currently classified as "endangered" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and its population is believed to have declined at least 50 percent in the past 65 years, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Scientists believe this species decline is a result of habitat fragmentation and poaching. The elephant's once-wide population range is now restricted from India to Vietnam.
The Asian elephant feeds primarily on grasses, supplemented by tree bark, leaves, bananas, rice and sugarcane. The elephant is a keystone species; it helps maintain forest distribution by opening clearings and dispersing seeds. Ecologist Stephen Blake said the extinction of the Asian elephant would alter the distribution of plants in the region, favoring abiotically-dispersed plants, potentially alerting at least 100 native plant species.
Some scientists have envisioned an entire reintroduction of the woolly mammoth species - namely, geneticist Hwang Woo-Suk. If this name sounds familiar, it's most likely due to this now-disgraced researcher's various slew of cloning scandals involving numerous fabricated results, including the false claim that he had produced the first set of cloned embryonic cells from a human. Woo-Suk now heads the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, and was working to clone the mammoth in 2012.
While any real plan to execute this concept remains far in the future, it's important that we discuss the implications of this possibility now. First, this is not the only effort to alter natural populations through cloning. The Brasilia Zoological Garden is currently working on a project to clone eight endangered species in the country. While projects like these should only be undertaken with extreme caution, I believe they could, under certain conditions, be ecologically beneficial.
As of now, there are no immediate plans to create a wild mammoth (or mammoth/elephantn hybrid) in nature. But some scientists have proposed that the introduction of a mammoth/elephant hybrid population could mitigate the population issues that the Indian elephant currently faces.
Essentially, in this project, scientists are proposing to introduce an invasive species. Whether the scientists introduce a full mammoth, or a hybrid, into the wild, this species will be non-native. While many of the typical concerns associated with species invasion (no natural predators, interspecies competition for resources) may not be a concern in this case, the fact remains that we would be introducing a species that has not adapted to the complexities of its environment.
We don't know what that would entail. The mammoth may employ vastly different behavioral changes that could lead to the degradation, rather than maintenance, of the forest. The mammoth adapted to eat a variety of plants that no longer exist. They adapted to an environment that, clearly, is very different from the one we live in today.
To determine these impacts and design the "ideal organism" for this environment, scientists would have to study every gene that codes for every behavioral, biochemical and morphological trait in this species. They would have to know every complex interaction between these genes, especially within the noncoding region of the genome. Additionally, they would have to understand every transcriptional, translational and post-translational modification within this species.
In short, they can't. Scientists have not even come close to fully understanding these concepts in humans.
Furthermore, previous experiments in hybridization of closely related species have yielded inconsistent results. Species hybrids are often less fertile than their "pure" parents. Therefore, combining the elephant and mammoth species may result in the creation of infertile organisms, potentially exacerbating the population plight of these species.
This project encroaches on dangerous territory by risking the well-being of a species that is already endangered. Our conservation efforts would be better spent targeting poachers and restoring the diminished habitats of the Indian elephants and maximizing the number of offspring produced in this species per year. While the work on the mammoth is certainly fascinating, scientists can currently stand to learn much from the genetic information and biological tissue that has been collected. Cloning, while a fascinating concept, is likely unpractical and has the potential to do more ecological damage than good.
As fascinating as the concept of de-extinction may appear, it's probably best to let the woolly mammoth rest in peace.