Mammoths, giant land animals, extinct for approximately 4000 years that roamed our Earth during the last ice age, capable of surviving sub-zero temperatures - is there a chance we will see them again?
A surprise discovery of mammoth DNA
A recent discovery of mammoth DNA was made in ivory trinkets sold in Cambodia. The trinkets were sold as “elephant” ivory, but actually came from mammoths.
The discovery was made during a DNA test by the Cambodian ivory project, a partnership between the University of Phnom Penh, the Royal Government of Cambodia and The Royal Zoological Society of Scotland as well as Fauna and Flora International. The partnership is funded by the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund grant from the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DFFRA).
The project examines ivory trinkets in order to find DNA traces of illegally hunted elephants, so that they can be traced, and further poaching prevented. The mammoth ivory must have been dug out from the arctic tundra.
Are we getting closer to cloning mammoths?
A further discovery was made earlier this year, when a group of Japanese and Russian scientists managed to briefly “awaken” a mammoth cell. Cells from a 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth, found in Siberian permafrost, were in good enough condition to perform a nuclear transfer process. Yuka, as the juvenile woolly mammoth was named, was the most intact and well-preserved mammoth ever found.
The nucleus-like structures of the mammoth were implanted into mouse oocytes, cells specialised to facilitate embryonic development. Through live-cell imaging techniques traces of biological activity were discovered.
90-year-old Akira Iritani, a co-author on the new study who's spent years working toward resurrecting the woolly mammoth, told CNN: “I was looking under the microscope at night while I was alone in the laboratory. I was so moved when I saw the cells stir. I’d been hoping for this for 20 years.”
The observed biological processes were pre-cursors to cell division, such as spindle assembly, histone incorporation and partial nuclear formation, but not cell division itself. The nuclei, however, showed signs of preparing to make new cells. This evidence of biological activity after 28,000 years is astonishing.
This does, unfortunately, not mean that science is close to cloning mammoths. For that to happen, there needs to be better technology and more viable DNA samples. But this represents, nevertheless, an amazing scientific step forward.
Discovering viable mammoth DNA is also a step towards finding out how these great animals adapted to their extreme environment.