Russian scientists of Sakha Republic will attempt to clone woolly mammoths and other extinct animals, using remains that are extracted from the permanently frozen layers of the ground in Subarctic Siberia.
How to Clone a Woolly Mammoth
A newly equipped laboratory in Yakutsk has already started working on the project of resurrecting extinct animals, reported Kommersant.ru.
The capital of autonomous Sakha Republic of the Russian Federation is located 450 km (280 miles) south of the Arctic Circle, and is officially considered the coldest regional city on Earth, according to Weather.com. Winter temperatures in the region’s capital of around -50˚C (-58˚F) are still warmer than in Oymyakon, a village that can be reached by driving for 2 days, which recorded temperatures of -71˚C (-96˚F), and has been dubbed the “Pole of Cold”. (Scroll down for a video.)
Sakha Republic is the largest region of the Russian Federation. By its land size (over 3 million square km, or 1.15 million square miles) Sakha Republic is larger than Argentina or Kazakstan, however, its population is under 1 million people.
Welcome to the setting of the new cloning venture by Russian scientists.
The location of the laboratory in the regional center provides a closer access to the grounds that have been preserved by the permanent frost, where remains of prehistoric animals are frequently found by hunters.
Together with the lack of oxygen, the permafrost preservation offers the potential of finding some undamaged DNA in the remains of extinct animals, and make the outrageous task of cloning them possible.
The Museum of Mammoth in the Research Institute of Applied Ecology of the North of the North-Eastern Federal University displays multiple trophies of prehistoric animals that are stored at the temperature of around -18˚C (-0.4˚F). The animals, which could be seen under cellophane wraps through clear windows, lived tens of thousands of years ago.
The most valuable remains are stored at the temperature of -87˚C (-124.6˚F). One of the latest precious finds is the carcass of a woolly mammoth, which had been found in 2012 on Malolyakhovskiy island by local hunters. The carcass was transported to Yakutsk in the frozen state by a group of international scientists, who arrived to study the remains in May 2013.
2,000 Frozen Animals
The director of the museum Semyon Grigoriev says that it possesses the world’s largest collection of frozen carcasses and remains of prehistoric animals.
Some remains that have been found are several thousand years old:
- A horse aged 4450 years
- A bison aged 8200 years
- A dog aged 12,350 years
The new laboratory will study the DNA of the remains with the view of finding alive cells, that would allow cloning. The scientists are not only attempting to clone the woolly mammoth but also other extinct animals.
However, according to Grigoriev, it is the possibility of cloning the woolly mammoth that the scientific world is thrilled about. “It’s like finding the cure for cancer for the medical world”, he says.
The unique conditions of the Russian Arctic are the reason why 95% of the world’s prehistoric remains with soft tissue were found here. Permafrost is the perfect preservative, due to the absence of oxygen.
Maxim Chepranov, one of museum’s scientists, points out that how well preserved are the soft tissues depends on the conditions of the thousand-year storage. “Permafrost is 70% earth and 30% water. When a live organism enters it, with time the water evaporates, and animals are mummified”, he said.
Grigoriev says that the best preserved remains are the ones that were stored inside pure ice. In the case of the mammoth found on Malolyakhovskiy island, the soft tissues of the body were still red. “When we broke the ice around the carcass, there was some dark-red liquid spilling, which, as we have found out later, was blood”, he said.
The Ideal Carcass for Cloning
However, finding a cell that is suitable for cloning is incredibly difficult. Most remains are found by locals, not scientists.
Local hunters are constantly out there, while scientists usually only go on expeditions during the short Arctic summer.
Sakha Republic is the only place in the world where collecting mammoth trunks became a local specialty, like harvesting wild mushrooms or herbs elsewhere.
The area between the rivers Yana and Kolyma is where the mammoths used to inhabit, as the large beasts disliked hilly regions. Locals call this area the “mammoth storage”.
Most often mammoths that have been found in Sakha permafrost died because of falling through the top (defrosted and therefore softer) layers of the ground during the summer months, which gave in because of the heavy weight of the animal. The mammoths fell through to the layer of the permafrost, where they died. It is also possible some mammoths were killed by the prehistoric people living in the area.
The hunters of the Yakagir tribe found the mammoth on Malolyakhovskiy island and some other famous remains.
Hunters are purposefully looking for valuable mammoth remains during their expeditions. If they find something worthy, they place remains on the natural ice, and report to scientists. This is another reason why finding alive cells for cloning is not straightforward, as remains are usually disturbed at the moment of discovery.
The Future of The Woolly Mammoth
Previously Russian scientists didn’t have the sufficient equipment to work with the remains on site.
The new laboratory is set up purposefully to allow working with rapidly aging samples within close proximity to the place where they are found. Now any remains that seem viable could be immediately placed in the correct environment, and any live cells would start reproducing within weeks.
However, there are skeptics who believe that it’s impossible to find undamaged cells suitable for cloning among prehistoric remains. Others believe that it’s only a matter of time.
The scientists were able to see cells in frozen samples on some occasions before, but they didn’t survive the defrosting procedure.
Now the goal is not just a search for an undamaged cell, but also for the correct thawing method.
Scientists hope that such a cell could be found in the hair of the furry coat of extinct animals. Then we might see the first real mammoth.
Video: From Yakutsk to Oymyakon -56°C (-69°F)
Sebastian Balders is a meteorology student who visited Oymyakon, the coldest place on Earth. If you think you would be unable to survive subzero temperatures, watch his movie about living in the cold climate of continental Siberia, where boiling water freezes to ice in the air.