Cloning sheep was scientifically impressive, but not that visually impressive. Cloning mice had research value, but created footage that was a little freaky at best. But using cloning to get an elephant to give birth to a woolly mammoth? Now that’s science you can see.
This isn’t the plot of another Jurassic Park sequel, but a project by a Japanese professor who believes he has a “reasonable chance” of success before the decade is out. Akira Iritani of Kyoto University plans to take tissue from a Russian university’s mammoth carcass, extract the nuclei from the cells, and use this to replace the nuclei in an elephant egg cell. The resulting embryo will be inserted into the uterus of an elephant.
The basic concept isn’t new: a project in the 1990s aimed to revive the extinct mammoth in the same way, but experienced problems in extracting suitable tissue from the frozen carcass. Iritani will now use a technique developed by Teruhiki Wakayama, who in 2008 cloned a mouse from cells frozen 16 years earlier, to identify healthy cells from the tissue before it is thawed.
Even if all goes to plan, it will be a lengthy process. Once the extraction is taken care of, it will take an estimated two years to prepare the embryo. Once the elephant becomes pregnant, the gestation period means the resulting animal won’t be born for another 22 months.
If the project does succeed, the main purpose will be to study the resulting mammoth in the hope of discovering more about how it became extinct. Iritani says there’ll need to be discussion about whether the mammoth should be further bred, and whether a public display (of the mammoth, not of the breeding) is appropriate.
The technique won’t, however, be of any use for bringing back dinosaurs. Having died out “only” around 5,000 years ago, there are still suitably preserved mammoths from which to work, an option that isn’t available for dinosaurs.