Researchers have been working for more than a decade towards bringing the long extinct woolly mammoth back to life.
Since the 1990s the efforts to resurrect the great beasts have become the crux of a debate over whether humans have the right to tinker with nature in such a bold and brazen fashion.
Some of the past articles dealing with the revolutionary science of extinct animal resurrection includes: "Mammoths: Resurrecting Extinct Megafauna," exploring the techniques and possibilities, "Extinct animals could be brought back to life thanks to advances in DNA technology," that documents the technology needed to accomplish the feat, "Ten extinct beasts that could walk the Earth again," that explores animals other than the woolly mammoth that some scientists are considering for resurrection, and Biology Online's overview of the subject, "Resurrecting extinct species."
The first serious attempt to bring back the mammoth—a creature extinct for 5,000 years—failed. Although cells were successfully harvested from mammoths found frozen in the Siberian tundra, the critical cellular nuclei needed to bring the animals back to life were severely damaged from the cold.
The Japanese have been at the forefront in the project to return woolly mammoths to the land of the living. It's been a dream bordering on an obsession for some of the research teams focused on the goal to resurrect extinct life.
Now a critical breakthrough in the quest for living mammoths has been achieved because of a revolutionary technique introduced by Dr. Teruhiko Wakayama, of the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology. Wakayama succeeded creating a living, healthy mouse with cells cloned from another mouse that was dead—and frozen—for more than 16 years.
Protocols to bring back the mammoth have been in place for some time. The final hurdle was how to successfully clone the animal from the frozen cells that are available. Wakayama's cloning technique seems to provide the solution to that dilemma.
"Now the technical problems have been overcome, all we need is a good sample of soft tissue from a frozen mammoth," Akira Iritani, a professor at Kyoto University, told the Daily Telegraph during an interview with the newspaper.
Professor Iritani, an original member of the mammoth resurrection project back in the 1990s, intends to move ahead with the new biotechnology and bring the mammoth back from oblivion. He intends to lead a new team back to Siberia to harvest more viable mammoth cells.
Once new cell nuclei have been harvested, they will be inserted, using Wakayama's cloning process, into an African elephant's egg cells. If everything goes right the elephant will carry the animal to term and give birth to the first woolly mammoth to take a breath in five millennia.
It's believed the gestation period will last about 600 days. And another two years will be needed before the new scientific team can impregnate the elephant.
According to a previous article appearing in the Telegraph, "The genomes of several extinct species besides the mammoth are already being sequenced." Animals such as the saber-toothed tiger and dodo bird are being discussed as candidates for resurrection.
The resurrection "movement" has accelerated. Scientists recently announced another successful first: the "resurrection" of a gene from the Tasmanian tiger. They accomplished that by implanting the gene in a laboratory mouse.
Other scientists are already cataloging thousands of such animals. Incredible as it may seem, chickens could carry Tyrannosaurus Rex embryos and lay a T-Rex egg, while Komodo dragons have been given the nod to carry genetically resuscitated 'Sarcosuchus imperators' (flesh crocodile emperors). Those monsters grew to a length approaching 40 feet and are estimated to have weighed more than eight tons. (By comparison, modern crocodiles rarely grow longer than 14 feet and weigh in at less than 1,000 pounds.)
Considering the possibility of bringing back long-dead creatures that walked the Earth millions of years ago, Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said, "It's hard to say that something will never ever be possible."
On the surface, that statement is true. But concerning those animals that became extinct relatively recently in geological time—-such as creatures like the woolly mammoth that trod this planet just 5,000 years ago—-they might as well have disappeared yesterday.
As a side note, Pääbo is currently sequencing the Neanderthal genome and the expectations are that our erstwhile hominid cousin will be walking amongst us again in the foreseeable future.
"The success rate in the cloning of cattle was poor until recently but now stands at about 30 per cent," Iritani told the Telegraph. "I think we have a reasonable chance of success and a healthy mammoth could be born in four or five years."
The day an elephant gives birth to a woolly mammoth will be a day that reverberates throughout history. The first animal brought back from extinction will certainly be an overnight sensation.
Already some of the world's top zoos are expressing an interest in obtaining living woolly mammoths. The purchase price is being speculated upon. So far the governing boards of some zoos have admitted they would consider paying as much as $25 million or more for a baby mammoth.