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Indian elephant to be impregnated in bid to bring back extinct woolly mammoth

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24 September 2012


Scientists working with remains of Yuka, woolly mammoth found in Yakutia in 2011. Picture: Gennady Boeskorov 

Disgraced stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk's private bioengineering laboratory confirmed he is poised to make a bid to return the extinct Siberian mammoth to the planet. Once the tissues have been treated to a nuclear transfer process, the eggs will be implanted into the womb of a live elephant for a 22-month pregnancy, reported Yonhap news agency.

'As we have retrieved fresh samples from polar regions never before explored in Siberia, this will be an important turning point for cloning the extinct mammoth', said Hwang.

He signed the agreement with the North-Eastern Federal University, capital of Yakutia, also known as the Sakha Republic. The two sides had reached an earlier accord allowing local researchers to use samples taken from mammoth remains found in the glaciers in this region.

An expedition in August found 'frozen and well-preserved remains of the extinct mammal and succeeded in retrieving soft tissue samples'.

Researchers will now try to clone the mammoth - extinct for around 3,700 years - by using the tissue samples along with eggs taken from a modern Indian elephant. 

'Hwang, once deemed a national hero in the field of human embryonic stem cell cloning, shook the South Korean academic society after it was discovered in 2005 that he published a paper using manipulated results. He was given a suspended prison term in 2009 for receiving state funds for his faked research,' reported Yonhap.

'The stem cell researcher, however, made a comeback last year when he successfully produced the world's first cloned coyotes using somatic cells from an endangered species known as American jackals.'

Some Russian scientists have warned that cloning the mammoth is wishful thinking. 

'I was surprised to hear reports about 'living' mammoth cells. I phoned my colleagues in Yakutsk to caution them against wishful thinking,' said Alexei Tikhonov, the deputy director of the St. Petersburg Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

'Even if we could revive a mammoth's cell and implant its nucleus into an elephant's egg, this would not produce an embryo, because these animals are too distantly related for that. They are not only from a different species, but from a different genus. 

'The Koreans have proved that you cannot clone a fox by using a wolf's egg'. 

He told RIA Novosti that the most scientists could achieve, provided the mammoth DNA is preserved intact, is to create a transgenic elephant, which is an elephant with mammoth genes added to its DNA. 

'It will be neither a mammoth nor an elephant,' he warned. 

Tikhonov is one of the most highly respected mammoth experts in the world and the scientific secretary of the Geneva-based International Mammoth Committee.

'On the other hand, science is continuously progressing. A few years ago, I would have said that cloning a mammoth is outright impossible. Today, I am not so sure. There may come a time when they are able to do it'. 

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