The Woolly Mammoth Genome Project: To Clone Or Not To Clone?

Dana Shemesh

Thousands of years after the legendary woolly mammoth roamed the Earth, scientists believe they have uncovered the iconic Ice Age beasts' genetic blueprint and that can one day bring it back to life.

According to the Washington Post, a team of researchers have managed to sequence the species genome in its totality – providing a detailed instruction manual on how to re-create a mammoth.

The study was published Thursday in the scientific journal Current Biology. In addition to detailing the woolly mammoth's genome, the study traces the ancient animal's evolution and changes throughout the centuries.

"This basically gives you the changes that account for a mammoth being a mammoth — the changes that allowed them to have hair, tremendous amounts of fat, large tusks," Hendrik Poinar, Director of the Ancient DNA Center at McMaster University, told CBS News.

"This then gives us this road map, so to speak, of what we would need to change in an Asian elephant chromosome to make them mammoth-like."

Known for its long shaggy fur and colossal tusks, the woolly mammoth first roamed the earth 700,000 years ago in Siberia and 10 migrated through northern Eurasia and North America. Scientists have not determined the exact cause of the species' extinction but suggest that it may be from human hunting, climate change, or the combination of both.

The latest genome study could eventually lead to resurrecting the mammoth by cloning, according to researchers. To do this, they'd create a mammoth embryo in a lab and use an elephant as a surrogate mother.

Harvard geneticist George Church has been called a "revivalist" who supports the idea of cloning an ancient woolly mammoth, or genetically enhancing modern day elephants to have some of the same characteristics as their wooly mammoth ancestors.

Church recently announced that his team had successfully spliced mammoth DNA into an Asian elephant genome.

Fellow revivalist Sergey Zimov, a Russian scientist, dreams of re-creating the Siberian tundra, complete with woolly mammoths grazing on a 10,000-year-old pasture ecosystem. Zimov reportedly believes his "Pleistocene Park" will help revive ancient grassland and prevent melting of Siberia's permafrost.

Critics say the genome study provides priceless information about the woolly mammoth and lends clues to factors that led to the woolly mammoth's eventual extinction, but that there are serious ethical issues to consider with genetic modification and cloning.

"The kid in me wants to see it, of course," Poinar, who co-authored the genome study, told CBS News.

But it's important to consider the ethical and logistical challenges to produce a single specimen for zoo-goers to gawk at. Should scientists "let sleeping dogs lie" or continue working towards genetically recreating the ancient woolly mammoth?

[Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images]