Cloning an Ice-Age Mammoth

On Thursday evening I wandered along to the Grant Museum for the last of their current series of lectures themed around Dinosaurs. The topic was very “Jurassic Park”, being on cloning dead animals – although to keep it scientifically realistic this was about Mammoths and not cloning lost extinct dinosaurs.

The talk was given by Dr Ian Barnes – who is quite a good public speaker and uses the ubiquitous Powerpoint slides to deliver the message in a quite an amusing way.

He started with a description of what he grandly titled The Lost Continent of Beringia – along with dramatic visuals evidently based on 1960s monster movies. The “lost continent” is actually the northernmost parts of Russia and Alaska, and the bit in between which is currently sea, but has on many occasions been land.

As he noted, thanks to the way the sea split and joined the land over the millennia, he is now able to get both climate change and biodiversity into his science grant applications – a fact which drew a wry laugh from the audience.

It also turned out that the dominant animal life-form in that part of the world today is the mosquito – billions of them per square inch (only a slight exaggeration) – which makes life a bit uncomfortable for the people who go up there to dig out mammoth bones. Add in the bears and cold and it isn’t a nice place to be – although thanks to the preservation of the mammoths in the permafrost, the actual science bit isn’t too difficult.

What was interesting to learn is that just a couple of weeks ago – a team published in Nature a DNA map for the mammoth which was extracted from a couple of hair samples. One was taken from a site in Northern Russia – and the other from a place called eBay!

The published report is about 70% of the genome of a sample mammoth, which sounded pretty impressive until he pointed out that there would be a lot of mistakes in that report thanks to the deterioration over time of the DNA sample. He estimated that they would need between 20-35 complete DNA samples to compare against each other and hence build up a complete working genome.

Of course the question then is what to do with it. Certainly at the moment, the best that can be done is to print it out on a very large number of sheets of A4 and comment on how clever humans are – although not killing them in the first place would have been more clever.

One question was would we realistically get a complete genome, and Dr Ian said that had I asked three years ago he would have been dubious, but with the advances in DNA technology he now has no doubt that it will be possible. Indeed, as each genome costs about a million dollars to collect, really all that is holding things back is money.

With DNA technology advancing at the rate it is, I personally would not be surprised if scientists are able to build artificial DNA strands within a decade – which coincidentally is probably when the first complete genome could be ready if funding is made available.

So, if the money is available – as we are talking about a “mere” $20 million a year – in about a decade the world’s newspapers could be dominated by news that the complete genome of the woolly mammoth is now known, and that an ethical debate was about to start on whether we should actually bring the animal back to life.

I would expect that to create a viable strain of mammoth, we really need at least four different mammoth genomes (and remember they would all be hybrids anyway) for biodiversity reasons – and probably some cross breeding with the African Elephant for simplicity.

I’d guestimate half a billion dollars and 15 years of work – and the world will have the iconic Woolly Mammoth roaming Siberia again. In terms of pure “wow factor”, that is damn impressive and really not that expensive in the grand scheme of things.

Quite exciting – and we are a lot closer to that end result than I realised before the talk started.

Woolly Mammoth

As usual with Grant lectures – it finished off with wine in their fabulously old-fashioned museum. The next series starts in January and is about animals – which will include a talk on mythical beasts and a film showing of the Planet of the Apes, probably introduced by UCL Historian of Science, Dr Joe Cain who happens to be quite the expert on sci-fi movies.

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