Mammoth excitement


A slightly inaccurate but cute mammoth

The film Jurassic Park came out in 1993 when I was ten. It’s one of the few films I vividly remember seeing in the cinema – I was totally riveted. I even shed a few tears when Dr Grant and Dr Sattler finally see their first ‘real’ dinosaurs (what’s worse is that I still cry when I watch that scene).

Back then I was convinced that within my lifetime there would be cloned dinosaurs walking the Earth. I remember being impatient for this to happen, but realising that we probably weren’t quite there yet.

So I was unreasonably excited to read the news this week that scientists from Russia and Japan are planning to clone a woolly mammoth. Seriously. A mammoth. I’m sure it’s still a long way off, but THIS IS WHY SCIENCE IS COOL.

In the traditions of good science writing, I should head straight into caveats here. As excited as I am by the possibility of mammoths being brought back from the dead, it’s pretty much a million-to-one shot. For one thing, a baby mammoth has to grow inside something big, and it would take a long time to develop. All kinds of things would be likely to go wrong, that’s assuming the scientists could successfully create an embryo by combining the nucleus of a mammoth cell and the egg of an elephant – another long shot.

But I have to say that even the fact they’re considering it has me excited. I love the idea of scientists trying to resurrect an enormous prehistoric animal. It’s a bit like the quest to land men on the moon in the 1950s and 1960s – no immediate benefit to the public, but the potential for discovery and sheer wow factor makes it almost irresistible. Hang the expense, I want a mammoth!

Another extinct animal on my list would have to be the dodo. I went to Mauritius a few years ago and a guide on one of the small islands nearby told us that scientists were trying to bring a dodo back using DNA from some of the preserved specimens – but sadly I haven’t heard anything else since then.

It is a stupidly difficult task, and that’s before you even get to the (rather unlikely) risks that made Jurassic Park so exciting. But even though the mammoth story is news before anything has really happened, I love reports like this. They remind me how inspiring science can be, and although I don’t have quite as much faith in the future of mammoth cloning as my ten-year-old self would have done, I still dream about waking up to a science headline that changes everything.

One thing I really, really, really hope I live to see is the discovery of life on another planet. Just imagine opening your paper (or booting up your corneal RSS feed or whatever it will be in 80 years time) and reading ‘scientists confirm alien life exists’. My 108 year old self might just die of excitement and joy.

So I try not to let too many caveats get in the way of that little flutter of wonder. Science is all about uncertainty, but that’s exactly what makes it so full of possibility. I can’t imagine the science news of the future, but I also can’t wait to read it.

3 Responses to “Mammoth excitement”

  1. Nemomum Says:

    I loved Jurassic Park too and we’d be sharing the tissue box during the first dinosaur sighting scene. When I watched it I was at school and planning to be a vet but I decided to be a geneticist instead after Spielberg worked his magic. Now, I don’t tell people all the time that the reason I have a PhD in genetics is down to watching Jurassic Park but I was like you, it was the first time that genetics had really appeared on my radar. Since then I’ve maintained an interest in research like the above.

    The mammoth projects have been going for quite a while and a very well preserved baby mammoth was found in permafrost a few years ago which is being examined as a possible source of DNA. I think in some ways it is less of a long shot than other projects because at least elephants are still around to try gestating one inside.

    You may be interested to read about Don Colgan’s project for bringing back the thylacine and Scott Woodward’s work on the Dead Sea Scrolls (they are written on goat hide and have been pieced together both visually and also with the DNA to at least pile the jigsaw bits into smaller piles). Things have really moved on in archaeogenetics and older and older DNA is being succesfully extracted. I recommend getting your hands on a copy of George Poinar’s book ‘Life in Amber’, fascinating book.

    • Nell Says:

      Thanks for a great comment! I have heard a bit about the thylacine project – I’ll have to find out more. And the book sounds interesting, thanks for the recommendation 😀

  2. Nemomum Says:

    I enjoyed your post. Interesting BBC article but pity the poor cow used as a surrogate for a mammoth! There is an alternative approach to bringing things back which I forgot to mention, selective rebreeding to enrich/activate the pool of ancient genes in a modern descendent. The quagga project is an example of that:

    When you consider that lots of genes have just been silenced during the course of evolution and that they can still be turned on then that’s a very interesting pool of ancient genetic material. There’s lots of work on mesoderm transfer from mammals to birds activating tooth bud formation and sometimes hens really do have teeth by mutation.

    Atavisms are pretty interesting.

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