Almost every time I get into a discussion about woolly mammoths with someone the conversation eventually steers towards the topic of cloning a mammoth. “Wouldn’t it be fascinating?”, they often say. And with a little extra genetic engineering, many of my friends hope, maybe someone could create a breed of domesticated mini-mammoths that would definitely be in the running for the title of “Cutest Pet Ever” (at least until they left a mess on the carpet).
The possibility of housebroken mammoths, or at least mammoths in public zoos, seemed within reach in the spring of 1984. It was at that time that there appeared a curious article entitled “Retrobreeding the Mammoth” by Diana ben-Aaron in MIT’s Technology Review. It announced that a woolly mammoth, or at least something so close to one that the public would exclaim “I can’t believe it’s not a mammoth!”, had been successfully created through some dazzling scientific knowhow.
It had all started when Dr. Sverbighooze Nikhiphorovitch Yasmilov of the University of Irkutsk recovered some eggs from a female mammoth found frozen in Siberia. Even though the nuclei of the eggs were intact the cell membranes around them were degraded, so Yasmilov had to locate some cellular surrogates. He found what he was looking for in other cells extracted from the mammoth’s body and thus was able to make the eggs viable again.
The trick was recognizing the potential in the eggs to make baby mammoths by combining them with sperm. When Dr. James Creak of MIT investigated the eggs he was able to determine that there was about a four percent genetic different between the DNA of a living Asian elephant and the extinct mammoth. With a little bit of tinkering, Creak told Yasmilov, it might be possible to create a mammoth-elephant hybrid using the ancient egg and modern sperm.
The experiments required persistence. Over 60 attempts failed before Yasmilov was able to fertilize eight eggs which were then implanted in female Asian elephants. Of those eight only two developed successfully and were carried to term. After a long and difficult experimental phase, the first elephant-mammoth hybrids had been born. They were to be given the scientific name Elephas pseudotherias, though the public could call them “mammontelephas”, and Yasmilov was even starting to get ideas for how these new creatures might be put to work;
Great in cold climes, Yasmilov plans to train the mammontelephases to earn their keep when they reach adulthood. They could help pull immobilized convoy trucks out of the snowdrifts on the Trans-Siberian highway. This is now a troublesome task, as the machinery employed to do the job may freeze in the bitter cold. The mammontelephases could also be used for logging, and there may even be a job on the Trans-Siberian pipeline.
News outlets ate the story up. It didn’t matter that the new creatures were hybrids; someone had brought an extinct species back from the dead! Hundreds of newspapers ran versions of the story, which was said to be confirmed by international sources, but it was all a hoax. You would think that a story about so fantastic a subject printed on April first would garner at least some skepticism, but apparently what was meant as a harmless creative writing exercise by an MIT student blew up into a media frenzy. As an editorial in the Technology Review later stated, Dr. Yasmilov, Dr. Creak, and the “mammontelephases” were all fabrications. The news sources that carried the story most prominently, like the Chicago Tribune and papers that subscribed to its syndication service, had run with the story before bothering to check it.
And here we are, over twenty five years later, without any mammoths. The idea of cloning a mammoth has definitely captured the imagination of the public but I am extremely doubtful that human eyes will ever again see a true living woolly mammoth. Would such an endeavor even be worthwhile? Perhaps some knowledge could be gained about the recovery of ancient DNA in the process, but generally I think it would be far more profitable to try to save the wild elephants we have left than re-engineer one that has slipped into extinction.