10,000 years ago, a Wooly Mammoth died in what is now Siberia and its body fell into a prehistoric lake. The lake quickly froze, preserving the mammoth’s remains for the next 10 millenniums.
Fast forward to May of this year, when a team of Russian scientists headed by Seymon Grigoriev from the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk went searching in the cold Arctic weather on the New Siberian Islands for evidence of past life. They happened upon the carcass belonging to the long-dead mammoth, discovering not only bones but also muscle tissue preserved so well it was still red. Their most astonishing find? Liquid blood.
The Siberian mammoth was a female who died when she was around 60 years old—a fact determined from her ancient teeth. Her body was partially eaten—the head and back appeared to be gnawed off, but the rest of the body was present. The upper legs and the stomach were the most intact—the stomach is where the blood flowed from—and only bones remained from the lower body. Its tissues were so well preserved due to the fact that the remains weren’t thawed and frozen many times, which will ruin any viable DNA.
The muscle tissue of the 10,000 year odl mammoth, still red from well-preserved hemoglobin in the blood.
Scientists were initially hoping to use the exceptionally well-preserved remains to clone a prehistoric mammoth. A cell with intact DNA could hypothetically be inserted into an elephant egg and develop into a mammoth, giving scientists unprecedented insight into prehistoric life.
But the question on many minds—not just those of scientists—remains a tough one: should humans bring back a species that has gone extinct? Scientists have long debated whether or not we should revive extinct animals, and the new mammoth discovery puts the possibility of de-extinction leaps and bounds closer to fruition than it has ever been. Those pro-revival are saying its our obligation as humans, arguing that we were the reason many species have gone extinct and so must be the force that can bring them back. Those against it maintain that diverting our financial and intellectual resources towards a de-extinction effort would slow our efforts towards preventing extinction of present-day endangered species. They say that bringing back long-gone species gives humans an easy out when the blame is placed on us for causing extinctions.
Unfortunately, much of the 10,000-year old mammoth DNA is damaged and probably can’t be used for cloning. Aging and climatic conditions degrade DNA, breaking it down into small pieces that render it useless for cloning. The researchers are maintaining the hope that they will find white blood cells–which are likely to have viable DNA.
Discover more about the Siberian mammoth at siberiantimes.com.
Read on about the de-extinction debate in Scientific American magazine and at TEDxDeExtinction, a website dedicated to the de-extinction debate and the March 15th conference in Washington D.C. this year about revival of extinct species.
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