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Preserved woolly-mammoth autopsy shows cloning is a real possibility

A female woolly mammoth unearthed in Siberia has undergone necropsy, and scientists believe they will be able to extract high-quality DNA.

Image by Charles R. Knight, 1915, public domain

The female woolly mammoth unearthed in the Lyakhovsky Islands in May 2013 could one day become the "mother" of the first woolly mammoth to walk the earth in millennia.

The discovery of the beast caused excitement when the scientists who unearthed her found that she was very well preserved -- to the point that her blood was still liquid after all these years.

Now, after a necropsy (an autopsy on an animal), the team has discovered that the mammoth's soft tissues are in excellent condition, so much so that they may be able to extract enough high-quality DNA to perform an analysis -- and maybe even a reconstruction.

"We have dissected the soft tissues of the mammoth -- and I must say that we didn't expect such results. The carcass that is more than 43,000 years old has preserved better than a body of a human buried for six months," Viktoria Egorova, chief of the Research and Clinical Diagnostic Laboratory of the Medical Clinic of North-Eastern Federal University, Siberia, told the Siberian Times. "The tissue cut clearly shows blood vessels with strong walls. Inside the vessels there is haemolysed blood, where for the first time we have found erythrocytes. Muscle and adipose tissues are well preserved."

The team also found migrating lymphoid tissue cells; the liver, intact, with hard fragments inside, possibly kidney stones; and the animal's intestines, with the remains of the vegetation it consumed prior to dying still inside. The analysis of the blood, interestingly, revealed some insight into how the mammoth died: the blood was "agonized," indicating that the animal had died an unnatural death, in pain for 16 to 18 hours. The unnatural angle of the leg leads scientists to believe the mammoth fell into an ice hole and couldn't get out.

Cloning is something the scientists are considering -- but first they have to determine if the DNA is usable for this purpose, including something called a "living cell" -- the least damaged DNA; and then, of course, there's the tricky matter of gestation.

"The next question is how to use an elephant in the cloning process," Semyon Grigoriev, the leader of the expedition that found the mammoth, explained. "The evolutionary path of the mammoth and the elephant diverged a long time ago. So even if we could get a 'living cell' we need to have a special method of cloning. The Koreans are working on getting the clones from different species, but, you see, it is not so fast. If we do not get 'living cell,' we will have a longer route. Then we should create artificial DNA; it could take 50 or 60 years."

And then there are the moral concerns around cloning extinct animals. Some scientists believe that such an act would be irresponsible. First of all, you have to determine how and why an animal became extinct. Then you have to examine the impact of the animal's return on the current environment. And then you have to think about how it would affect the animal itself. Elephants, for example, are herd animals; how would the world's only mammoth cope?

As Vice President of the Russian Association of Medical Anthropologists Radik Khayrullin said, "We must have a reason to do this, as it is one thing to clone it for scientific purposes, and another to clone for the sake of curiosity."

But, even without cloning, the mammoth is a rich source of information to the scientists.

"Apart from cloning, these samples will give us an opportunity to completely decode the DNA of the mammoth, and we will be able to decipher the nuclear DNA, which stores a lot of information," Grigoriev said. "So we have a unique opportunity to understand how the mammoth's blood system worked, its muscles and the trunk. Of course, we are engaged primarily in fundamental science. It is important to us to learn all possible details about mammoth. Maybe our findings will be used by applied science, but now it is early to think of it."

The team will present its findings at a special conference to be held in May. Meanwhile, you can see images of the necropsy on the Siberian Times Web site.

(Source: Crave Australia via The Siberian Times)