Potential cloning of a mammoth raises ethical questions among scientists
In a remote Siberian island, scientists found a thousands of years old woolly mammoth whose body had been exceptionally well preserved by the chunk of ice it spent the last 40,000 years in.
Now, the Independent reports, scientists are trying to make use of the animal’s tissue, that has been preserved so well by the elements, to find a full cell with a whole nucleus containing an intact genome.
The British daily reports that this will be the subject addressed in a Channel 4 film that will aire next weekend which follows the story of a South Korean biotech company’s journey in exploring the giant animal’s body.
The team found that Buttercup, the name the mammoth was given, was alive almost 40,000 years ago. They even suggested she may be cloned.
However, scientists have shown mixed reactions to reviving a species that has been extinct for more than 10,000 years now.
“We’re getting an unprecedented amount of access to mammoth samples through this collaboration,” Insung Hwang, a geneticist at Sooam, was quoted as saying by the Independent.
“DNA has been distributed to multiple institutes for scientific purposes,” he added.
“The guys from South Korea, who are collecting tissue for cloning, were excited because the better preserved the tissue, the greater their hopes were that there would be some intact DNA,” Tori Herridge, a palaeobiologist based at the Natural History Museum in London, explained.
She did add that reviving the woolly mammoth would be a great inconvenience for their modern-day descendants, the elephants.
“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; cloning a mammoth will require you to experiment on probably many, many Asian elephants,” Herridge, an expert in mammoth anatomy, said.
“The most important thing is how much we can learn without having to go down the route of cloning,” she added.
The controversy lies, according to Herridge, in subjecting a female elephant to the pains of going through a 22-months pregnancy that might not end as planned.
“Whether or not the justifications for cloning a mammoth are worth the suffering, the concerns of keeping an elephant in captivity, experimenting on her, making her go through a 22-month pregnancy, to potentially give birth to something which won’t live, or to carry something which could be damaging to her. And all of those aspects… I don’t think that they are worth it; the reasons just aren’t there.”
Hwang conceded that “there are inherent ethical questions that we have to address.”
“That’s why we have to start discussing the implications now,” he said.
“Some of our colleagues are still working on analyzing the genome from Buttercup’s specimen. This is a long and complicated process that is unlikely to be finished anytime in the near future,” he told the Independent.