Cloning a Woolly Mammoth: Good Science or Vanity Project?

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 14 2012 5:15 PM

Cloning a Woolly Mammoth: Good Science or Vanity Project?

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A woolly mammoth skeleton with 90 percent of its original bones.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Scientists in South Korea and Russia agreed Tuesday to try to clone a woolly mammoth, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The scientists intend to make a wooly mammoth embryo by replacing the nuclei of an elephant cell with that of a woolly mammoth cell (presumably from the remains of a mammoth uncovered in Siberia last year). Then they would use an elephant as a surrogate, according to the Journal.

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One of the leaders of the endeavor, Hwang Woo-suk, has a patchy history with cloning. He rose to fame in 2004 and 2005 with claims that he and his team had made a human embryonic stem cell. Their data turned out to be false.

Since then, Hwang has made an attempt at a comeback. In October 2011, after he became the first to clone a coyote, he announced his woolly-mammoth plans. At the time, evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, was skeptical after Hwang. He told CBS News, "There is no good scientific reason to bring back an extinct species. … Why would one bring them back? To put them in a theme park? ... Simply studying their evolution, which can be done from old fossil bones, seems far more satisfying to me—but that's just me."

And indeed, Hwang’s financial backer, Kim Moon-soo, seems more interested in headlines than scientific advances. In October, he told ABC News, "Our original dream is cloning dinosaurs. It may be difficult now ... but we believe we will shake the world once again by creating a live Jurassic Park that would be incomparable to Spielberg's imaginative Jurassic Park."

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Caitlin Mac Neal is an intern for Future Tense.