If geneticists and research teams across the world have their way it won’t be many years until families are gaping in wonder and exclaiming with amazement at new exhibits of animals that last roamed the Earth thousands, even millions, of years ago. Some of the biggest zoos in the world are excited about it too.
The return of the woolly mammoth
Several teams have been working for more than a decade to gather the necessary genetic material to resurrect the extinct woolly mammoth. The mammoth is a relative of the modern day elephant. Mammoths are thought to have completely died out about 4,000 years ago. The last ones are thought to have lived on a small island in the Aleutians.
Although there have been sporadic reports of living mammoths spotted in the wilds of Alaska and the barren tundra of Siberia, none of the sightings have been confirmed.
The bid to successfully resurrect the mammoth was boosted by a critical breakthrough: 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.
Because of Wakayama’s success, several projects to resurrect the extinct mammoth are now moving rapidly ahead. A team of Russian scientists has embarked on a cloning project after successfully harvesting viable DNA from a frozen baby mammoth unearthed in Siberia during late 2008.
Penn State has its own cloning project and DNA. The university team there believes they’ll reach success before 2015.
Meanwhile, RIKEN continues its efforts to bring back the mammoth, while over in China a team of researchers plans their own resurrection. Instead of focusing on the woolly mammoth, the Chinese hope to make the Neanderthal live again.
New evidence during 2011 revealed that several Siberian tribes have significant Neanderthal DNA present in their bodies. Whether that revelation will cause the Chinese team to drop their objective, or merely incite them to greater effort, remains to be seen.
The ‘Mammoth Creation Project’
Finally, the grandaddy of all mammoth resurrection attempts—the ‘Mammoth Creation Project’—is continuing at Kinki University’s Faculty of Biology Oriented Science and Technology in Japan.
The current project leader, Iritani has seen three previous attempts fail. The first cloning effort took place in 1997, but the DNA used was too badly frost damaged and the mammoth embryo was not viable.
Subsequent attempts also ended in failure, although each time the team inched closer to success.
Iritani and his team are accepting elephant eggs from zoos around the world and expect the birth of the first mammoth in 4,000 years to take place within a handful of years.
In 2011, Iritani told the Daily Yomiuri: “If a cloned embryo can be created, we need to discuss, before transplanting it into the womb, how to breed [the mammoth] and whether to display it to the public. After the mammoth is born, we’ll examine its ecology and genes to study why the species became extinct and other factors.”
Zoos are waiting imaptiently and negotiating behind the scenes for the privilege of housing the first of the world’s returning mammoths. All expect the animal to draw huge crowds and be a big moneymaker.
What came first, the Chickenosaur or the egg?
Despite many experts that assert dinosaurs can never be brought back, Dr. Jack Horner shrugs his shoulders and continues to work on his personal project to accomplish exactly that.
No one is laughing at Horner because contemporaries praise Horner as one of the smartest paleontologists in America. The scientist has made one major discovery after another.
Back in the 1970s Horner had his first amazing discovery. He dug up the first dinosaur eggs with embryos ever found in the West. That milestone was followed with the discovery of nesting grounds of a North American hadrosaur—the first such find in the world. Working with colleague Bob Makela in Montana, the two gave science its first look at dinosaur parenting habits.
During the years that followed, Horner discovered new species of never-before-seen dinosaurs. Some carry his name.
One day, while exploring the eastern Montana marshes, he came across a well-preserved Tyrannosaurus bone fragment. Examination of the fragment revealed that five proteins present in the bone are also found in everyday chickens.
That led Horner to an amazing concept, the “Chickenosaur.”
“Birds are descendants of dinosaurs,” Horner told Wired.com during a 2009 interview. “They carry their DNA. So in its early stages, a chicken embryo will develop dinosaur traits like a long tail, teeth and three-fingered hands. If you can find the genes that cancel the tail and fuse the fingers to build a wing—and turn those genes off—you can grow animals with dinosaur characteristics.”
Professor of geology Frank Ettensohn of the University of Kentucky says of Horner, “In science, somebody has to think big and out of the box, and that’s him.”
At first, heady with his discovery, Horner envisioned re-creating the Tyrannosaurus Rex, a monster of the past that excites the imaginations of many, especially 13-year-old boys.
After some years of research, however, Horner has modified his original goal into an idea he thinks has a very good chance of succeeding: creating a much smaller velociraptor-sized dinosaur.
Would zoos be interested in an 8-foot high dinosaur? Well, as every schoolboy knows, dinosaurs trump mammoths any day.