The mammoth hair used for sequencing was not found in the wreckage of a small town ravaged by a rampaging Mammoth.
I think that's pretty interesting news, but of course that isn't what what is making it burn up the airwaves and internet tubes. What's captured the public imagination is a comment by one of the lead scientists on the project, Stephan C. Schuster, that elephant DNA could be modified at the 400,000 or so positions where it differs from the mammoth, then used to create an embryo that would be carried by an elephant. The result: a baby woolly mammoth brought back from extinction. And all for the low, low price of $10 million!
I think tedious and expensive are relatively easy barriers to overcome, since even in these difficult economic times there are wealthy people who are looking for projects to spend their money on. A single cloned woolly mammoth wouldn't exactly be enough to create a Pleistocene Park, but it could be a step in that direction.
But would it be the right thing to do? Kelly Hills at Women's Bioethics Blog notes that there are some ethical issues we should consider before taking that step:
And more in my own areas of interest: do we really have the right to bring something back from the dead? Can we assume that it died for a reason, and we might really be mucking with things to undo that? If we regenerated a mammoth today, would it have the right foods to eat? How would its immune system handle common viruses? Would the climate be right? Where would it live? Are they herd animals, or can they be solitary?It's already controversial to keep elephants in zoos. Would it be cruel to resurrect a lone mammoth for a life of possibly very uncomfortable captivity? And what would science gain by the experiment?
Professor Schuster doesn't think it would add much to our current understanding of mammoth biology:
"From a scientific perspective, I think we would learn very little from doing this. A lot of what you want to learn about body plan and tissues we can get just by studying the carcasses," said Schuster. "I would file it under the category of boutique science. The public is very curious. But you'd just generate a few specimens, a freak creature that you could put on display."Given that, it's a bit surprising that the Times got Harvard geneticist George Church to speculate on methods of cloning Neanderthals that would skirt ethical and religious objections to generating clones with modified human DNA:
Considering the close similarity between the human and chimpanzee genomes, I doubt there would really be much difference between chimp and human genomes modified to be "close" to Neanderthal DNA. For me, at least, the ethical considerations would be the same using either approach: what would we gain by creating a lone Neanderthal, beyond the "gee whiz" factor?
Dr. Church said there might be an alternative approach that would “alarm a minimal number of people.” The workaround would be to modify not a human genome but that of the chimpanzee, which is some 98 percent similar to that of people. The chimp’s genome would be progressively modified until close enough to that of Neanderthals, and the embryo brought to term in a chimpanzee.“The big issue would be whether enough people felt that a chimp-Neanderthal hybrid would be acceptable, and that would be broadly discussed before anyone started to work on it,” Dr. Church said.
And Larry Moran points out another potential issue:
What if the Neanderthals turn out to be smarter than us—a distinct possibility? Wouldn't they take over all the good jobs, like university professors? And what if they turn out to be stupider than the average human? Don't we already have enough creationists?Scary!
- Mammoth Genome Project Web Site
- Wade N. "Regenerating a Mammoth for $10 Million" New York Times, 19 November 2008
- Rebuilding a Mammoth, One Piece at a Time (illustration of the NY Times article)
- Palaeogenes" mammoth task, Nature Editor's Summary (20 November 2008)
- Miller W et al. "Sequence the nuclear genome of the extinct woolly mammoth" Nature 456, 387-390 (20 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature07446
- Knight Science Journalism Tracker rounds up articles in the main stream media
- Sedwick, C. "What Killed the Woolly Mammoth?" PLoS Biol 6(4): e99 doi:10/1371/journal.pbio.00660099
Images: top: scene from SciFi movie Mammoth, middle: drawing of a woolly mammoth, bottom: recreation of a Neanderthal face from a skull, from BBC Horizon Programme
Tags:science fiction, cloning, genetic engineering, mammoths, Neanderthals