A new scientific discovery has the public excited at the prospect of bringing a long extinct species back into the world. On Thursday Russian scientists announced they had found a perfectly preserved woolly mammoth carcass with liquid blood on a remote Arctic island.
The carcass and blood is claimed by Russian scientists to be so well preserved that has ignited talk about the possibility of serving as a base for attempts to clone the mammoth back from extinction. Although other scientists are skeptical of the more grandiose claims, it is still a remarkable discovery that gives us insight into these ancient beasts.
The carcass was discovered on the Lyakhovsy Islands off the Siberian coast of Russia. The expedition was lead by Semyon Grigoryev, the head of the Mammoth Museum, and a team sent by the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, Russia. In a statement Grigoryev said, "The blood is very dark, it was found in ice cavities bellow the belly and when we broke these cavities with a poll pick, the blood came running out."
Grigoryev claims that the blood may possess cryoprotective features, an ability to protect cells from damaging during freezing. In a press release he claimed, "We have put the blood sample into the freezer of the Mammoth Museum. It still did not freeze at -17 degrees Celsius [1.4 degrees Fahrenheit]. We need to study it thoroughly to draw any conclusions."
Grigoryev claims that the specimen is remarkable well preserved, saying in press release, "The fragments of muscle tissues, which we've found out of the body, have a natural red color of fresh meat. The reason for such preservation is that the lower part of the body was underlying in pure ice."
It is thought that the mammoth went extinct over 10,000 years ago. Scientists have learned much about this creature, including deciphering much of the mammoth’s genetic code from previously-found specimens. Although some believe that it is possible to clone the mammoth if more information can be gathered, this has never been confirmed.
Before you watch Jurassic Park again to prepare for the possibility of long-extinct animals coming to life there are a few caveats that you should keep in mind. So far the only news of this has come from a press release of the team and the initial reporting of the discovery. Scientific American talked to Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan, a leading authority on mammoths who has worked with Grigoryev in the past. He told Scientific American in an email,
"Likewise, they have not found any ‘living cell’ — at most they could hope to find what the cloning enthusiasts might call a cell with ‘viable’ DNA, meaning that it would be intact enough to use in the context of a cloning effort. In fact, although there is much talk of ‘viability’ of this sort, I think it remains to be demonstrated that any DNA from a mammoth meets this criterion. In general, ancient DNA is highly fragmented and by no means ‘ready to go’ into the next mammoth embryo."
"At the moment, I must reserve judgment on the specific nature of this new sample, but I am sure it will be of interest."
Scientific American also talked to Kevin Campbell, a researcher at the University of Manitoba who has used ancient DNA to recreate the mammoth’s red cell blood protein hemoglobin and observe how it functioned. He said:
"If mammoth blood had this trait, they would be the only known mammalian example of this to my knowledge […] At any rate, I highly (very highly) doubt that circulating mammoth blood was able to supercool to -17C–though it is worth testing the samples to see why they are still ‘fluid’."
"Regardless, this–on balance–appears to be a remarkable finding [if of course it is true--and I have no way to assess that at this point] and something worth pursuing."
While this may not be the straight shot for mammoth rides in the future, it still has the potential to be an extremely exciting discovery for our modern understanding of the physiology of these ancient beasts. And who knows? Maybe scientists will discover enough to actually bring the woolly mammoth back to life, against all the odds. Stranger things have happened.