A remarkable find may help scientists go one step closer in reviving the extinct woolly mammoth.
Remains which included pieces of woolly mammoth skin believed to be at least 10,000 years old were found preserved in Siberia's freezing temperatures, giving hope to scientists that the gentle giant can be revived by cloning.
"The skin is especially interesting for the Revival of the Mammoth project," said Semyon Grigoryev, head of the expedition that found the remains. The skin was found on the Lyakhovsky Islands at the Siberian nothern coast.
The area was thought to be the last area woolly mammoths inhabited before extinction. Efforts in pushing the cloning plan forward are already underway. The North-Eastern Federal University in Siberia and the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation of South Korea, a leader in animal cloning, have arranged for an agreement to analyze the remains.
The skin is currently being examined in a facility that has been specially set up to look for "living cells" that can be used for cloning. This is done by inserting the genetic material into living animal DNA, most likely Asian elephant egg cells. The laboratory is located in Yakutsk, which currently contains the largest collection of prehistoric animal remains.
"One of the world's greatest concentrations of mammoth remains is here, so we deliberately chose this area to carry out the research," said Grigoryev.
Other researchers have also tried to clone the woolly mammoth back to life. The one that came closest so far is a team from Harvard University that said they were able to copy 14 genes of the animal onto a genome of the Asian elephant.
However, experts are skeptical that cloning a woolly mammoth can ever be successful.
There is little chance to successfully produce viable embryos that can reach term with the available technology. Cloned animals are also known to be of poor health. Lastly, there is also the issue of where the animal will live if cloning is successful.
For now, Grigoryev's team will focus on learning more about the woolly mammoth.
Scientists still do not fully understand what drove the woolly mammoth to extinction more than 300,000 years ago, though many believe it to be due to climate change and being hunted. Humans found many uses for woolly mammoths other than food. They used its fur for clothing and its tusks for weapons.
Photo: Chris Hunkeler | Flickr