It's an age-old ethical question: just because we can clone living things, should we?
That debate is front and center now that scientists have a well-preserved sample of DNA from a woolly mammoth.
The sample came from a recent find in Siberia of mammoth remains discovered in good condition: so good that fresh blood was found within some of the mammoth's tissue. The mammoth, an adult female nicknamed Buttercup, was found earlier this year with three of her legs, most of her body and part of her head and trunk still intact. Scientists believe that she became trapped in a peat bog and then eventually eaten by other animals.
A south Korean biotechnology company also extracted DNA from Buttercup with hopes of cloning the animal.
"We're getting an unprecedented amount of access to mammoth samples through this collaboration," says Insung Hwang, a geneticist at Sooam. "DNA has been distributed to multiple institutes for scientific purposes."
However, other scientists are saying that just because we can clone the mammoth, that maybe we shouldn't. Beyond the usual Jurassic Park reasonings, cloning the mammoth raises other ethical concerns. For example, if the South Korean scientists clone the mammoth, they'll need an adult elephant to carry the fetus to term, and that might prove cruel treatment of the elephant chosen for that task.
"The most fundamental step and ethical concern with this kind of procedure is that you need to have an Asian elephant surrogate mum at some point; cloning a mammoth will require you to experiment on probably many, many Asian elephants," says Dr Tori Herridge, a palaeobiologist based at the Natural History Museum in London. "The most important thing is how much we can learn without having to go down the route of cloning."
Such a process would mean keeping an elephant in captivity, where it will suffer from experimentation and then forced to birth an offspring that may or may not survive. All these conditions affect the elephant's well-being. Herridge points out that the suffering of elephants involved in the process isn't worth it for cloning one mammoth.
Scientists have other reasons not to clone the mammoth, though. Not only would a cloned mammoth have difficulty coping with the world's current weather conditions, it would also be lonely. Mammoths are social creatures and prefer their own kind, and if cloned, there probably wouldn't be a herd for them to run with. There are also other unseen threats to mammoths that exist today that didn't exist when they were alive.