The creator of the famous sheep believed possible that the finding of traces of blood in the body of a frozen specimen in Siberia could facilitate their return to Earth. The recent discovery of the woolly mammoth’s blood and muscle tissue under Siberia’s ice last May has rekindled interest in the scientific community to clone the animal that disappeared from the face of the Earth since 10,000 years ago.
The scientist Ian Wilmut, head of the team that created Dolly the sheep in 1997, described how from the remains found they could "resurrect" these extinct beasts in a few years, but the cloning process undertaken will differ enough from the one used in the first mammal in the world cloning.
"I've always been very sceptical about the idea, but I realized that once conquered the first hurdle of obtaining viable mammoth cells, I think you could do something useful and interesting," said Wilmut in The Guardian British newspaper.
The complex process would be based on coring several mammoth cells and insert them into Asian elephant ovules (thus being the closest species) to create an embryo with genes, which are then implanted in the uterus of an elephant, where the foetus will gestate for 22 months. However, this method presents several obstacles, including the difficulty of maintaining mammoth cells, with his intact DNA, of the remains found or the need to collect hundreds or thousands of ovules of this type of elephant, which is currently endangered species.
According to famed scientist, in the case of finding alternatives that could solve these barriers, it will last 50 years until we’ll perfect the technique for returning mammoths to Earth, though Wilmut at all times maintains its cautious approach and confesses that he would be very surprised if they succeed.
"I think we should do that whenever we can offer a large animal care. If there are reasonable prospects that are healthy, we must do it. We can learn a lot from them," he added.
The woolly mammoths, measuring up to four meters high, lived on Earth since the Pleistocene period, five million years ago, and became extinct during the Holocene, about 4,500 years ago.
Last May, an expedition sponsored by the Russian Geographical Society and specialists from North eastern Federal University (Yakutsk, eastern Siberia) could retrieve and examine the body of a 60 years old female mammoth, located in the month of August. Although the animal died more than 10,000 years ago, his remains remained intact, because half of his body was frozen, so they could even draw blood in a liquid state, which represents a crucial step on the road to cloning.
"When we broke the ice under his abdomen, very dark blood flowed. Moreover, muscle tissues were red, the colour of fresh meat. This is the most amazing case I've seen in my life," says Semyon Grigoryev, head of the scientific team.
Now the scientific development of cloning techniques will determine if in a few decades if the most popular extinct animal, after the dinosaurs, will be stepping again on the face of the Earth.