To Clone Mammoth
Associated Press Writer
1:07 AM EST; October 2, 1999; Flagstaff, AZ (AP) -- It sounds like a movie plot come to life: A Northern Arizona University Geologist aims to excavate and clone a woolly mammoth from DNA. Larry Agenbroad concedes that cloning the animal is unlikely. Still, he says biologists remain optimistic and he is excited about the project. Agenbroad is part of an international team of scientists whose first task is to cut the cloning candidate -- the likes of which roamed the Earth about two million years ago.
The adult male mammoth, estimated to be about 40 years old when it became frozen, was found by a 9-year-old nomadic reindeer herder in 1997. It's been named Jarkov, after the boy's family. "To feel the skin and touch the flesh of the mammoth will be quite spectacular. It's the closest I've gotten to an animal I've been chasing for more than 30 years," said Agenbroad, sitting in an office crammed full of mammoth bones, teeth, figurines, and paintings.
Agenbroad and scientists from the Netherlands, France and Russia, are removing the ice-encased animal from the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia and airlifting it more than 200 miles to the city of Khatanga. The mammoth will be kept frozen there in an underground tunnel, where scientists will study the 11-foot-tall animal. Besides analyzing dirt, pollen, and even its stomach contents, a primary task is to extract DNA for cloning.
The cloning process involves putting DNA from the mammoth into an Asian elephant's egg that has been stripped of elephant genes. So even though an elephant would give birth, the baby would be a mammoth, not a hybrid, Agenbroad said. "I don't think (the elephant) would know the difference, though she might wonder why her baby is so hairy." Agenbroad said he is not counting on success. "I guess it would be a rarity, but the biologists are quite optimistic," he said.
A medical ethicist at the medical school and the department of philosophy at the University of Alabama at Birmingham is among the naysayers. "You need live nuclei and live eggs, plus a host mammoth mother to gestate the fetus. Because none of these are available, 'Jurassic Park' to the contrary, it won't succeed,'' Greg Pence said, referring to the movie in which cloning was used to resurrect dinosaurs.
But scientists at Texas A&M University proved last month that live cells are not needed for cloning. The team successfully cloned a steer from the hide of another that died a year ago. Still, the odds are slim for mammoth cloning, said Hessel Bouma, III, a cell biology expert at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "It would start with DNA not from a fresh cell, but from one haphazardly frozen by nature,'' Bouma said. "The chances of DNA being completely intact is very, very small." But why bring back the mammoth in the first place? "Why not?" asked Agenbroad. "I'd rather have a cloned mammoth than another sheep," he added, referring to Dolly, cloned in 1997 from the udder of a six-year-old ewe. Agenbroad isn't the only one excited about the cloning prospects. "I think it would be a really wonderful thing," said Paul Martin, a retired professor of geosciences and a large mammals expert from the University of Arizona. "It would be a moon shot."