Can We Bring Back the Mammoth?

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November 23, 2008

10:38 PM

When the duck-billed platypus’ genome was sequenced, it made the cover of Nature. The platypus is an evolutionary question mark—it’s a cobbled together species of reptilian, mammalian, and avian traits. Sequencing its genome unlocked the door to answering many evolutionary questions.

This week scientists completed sequencing the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth. This raises a different evolutionary question: Is extinction permanent?

With the recent death of Michael Crichton, author of Jurassic Park, and the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin approaching in February, science writer Henry Nicholls takes a look at the possibility of cloning a mammoth.

In short, it isn’t anywhere near possible, even with a full genome sequence and a closely relating living species, elephants. Since no DNA samples from frozen mammoths have been found in intact nuclei, cloning by nuclear transfer isn’t an option.

This means the sequenced genome would have to be verified (the sequence might contain many errors) and synthesized into complete chromosomes. These chromosomes would then have to be transferred into a nucleus, and the nucleus transferred into a donor elephant egg. Finally a viable zygote would have to be implanted into an elephant surrogate and carried to term.

Not one of these steps is possible yet.

Nicholls reminds us, however, that cloning mammals was thought to be impossible 15 years ago. There is, as always, hope for the future.

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