Researchers debate science, ethics of cloning wooly mammoth

"We're getting an unprecedented amount of access to mammoth samples through this collaboration," said Insung Hwang.
By Brooks Hays  |  Nov. 17, 2014 at 12:04 PM
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SEOUL, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- A team of scientists are optimistic that an extremely well-preserved 40,000-year-old wooly mammoth will provide them with the DNA samples they need to clone the ancient beast.

The massive mammal was found by scientists in Russia in 2013, its eight-foot-tall frame found wedged in a chunk of ice on a remote island of Siberia. When scientists pulled it from the ice, the almost entirely intact body oozed blood. Researchers were able to pull fresh blood from the mammal's muscles.

That small vial of blood is now in the possession of a team of South Korean scientists led by Insung Hwang, a geneticist at the biotech research firm Sooam. Hwang and his colleagues hope DNA samples from the blood and other portions of the carcass will help them patch together a genome complete enough to clone.

As of yet, a complete mammoth genome doesn't exist, as DNA is extremely delicate and easily damaged.

"We're getting an unprecedented amount of access to mammoth samples through this collaboration," Hwang told a documentary film crew with the United Kingdom's Channel 4. "We're trying hard to make this possible within our generation."

But not all scientists are supportive. Many researchers have been highly critical of Sooam, the company which has made headlines in recent years for their work cloning dogs. Similar ethical qualms are being deliberated regarding the company's intentions of cloning a wooly mammoth.

A successful cloning of a wooly mammoth will likely rely heavily on the assistance of the modern day elephant, both in the form of supplemental DNA and as a surrogate to birth the clone.

"Cloning a mammoth will require you to experiment on probably many, many Asian elephants." Tori Herridge told The Telegraph. "I don't think they are worth it -- the reasons just aren't there."

Hwang acknowledged that neither that ethics or the science are necessarily straight-forward; he encouraged an open dialogue on the subject.

"There are inherent ethical questions we have to address," he said. "That's why we have to start discussing the implications now."

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