Big in Japan: How to clone a woolly mammoth

In honor of the recent passing of Michael Crichton, today’s posting is all about cloning…

Believe it or not, Jurassic Park may in fact be a reality sometime in the near future. Of course, we’re talking about the cloning parts of the books and films, not the Hollywood parts where the dinosaurs rampage, and eat pesky humans in equally horrific and amusing ways!

Last week in Japan, healthy mice were cloned from the cells of dead mice that had been frozen for 16 years. This groundbreaking scientific research raises the possibility that endangered – or even extinct – species could be cloned from old carcasses that have been tossed in freezers or found in permafrost, rather than from living cells.

When asked about the possibility of one day resurrecting a woolly mammoth, Teruhiko Wakayama of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, who led the research, elegantly stated: “It would be very difficult, but our work suggests that it is no longer science fiction.”

How awesome is that?

Let’s start with the basic question that is most likely on all of your minds – how the hell did they do it?

In simple layman’s terms, the Wakayama team took a nucleus from dead mouse tissue that had been frozen and later thawed, and then injected this into a mouse egg that had its nucleus removed. The resulting embryo was then used to create embryonic stem cells, the nuclei of which were then injected into other eggs to produce clones.

With me so far?

Here is the coolest part: the Wakayama team discovered that it was easiest to create clones from brain tissue, even though clones have never been created from living brain cells. Wakayama believes that freezing and thawing the tissue facilitates the ‘reprogramming’ of the brain cell nucleus.

So what does this all mean?

Most zoos do not have the money or the facilities to collect and cells from every part of every animal, nor to freeze them in such a way as to preserve their viability. However, the Wakayama team has provided evidence that you might be able to simply freeze the corpses of endangered animals, and save their DNA for a rainy day.

Just ask Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Massachusetts: “With a kitchen freezer you could store the genetic diversity of every panda in existence.”

And now, the ‘mammoth challenge!’

Bringing extinct animals back to life would be much, much trickier, especially since recovered woolly mammoth carcasses would most likely have frozen and thawed several times over the millennia. These processes cause quite a bit of damage to cell nuclei, and limit the chances that a viable clone could survive.

However, it may in fact be possible, and these latest findings are extremely, extremely positive!

So, it’s very likely that you’ll more about the Wakayama team in the years to come. After all, the Jurassic Park ride at Disney World is pretty cool, but we’re inclined to hold out for the real thing!

** Mammoth image courtesy of the WikiCommons Media project. Jurassic Park images are copyrighted by Warner Bros., and are presented here for the purposes of identification and/or critical commentary. **