New mammoth discovery animates clonal hopes.
The Siberian Times announced May 29 that scientists led by Semyon Grigoriev had found a well-preserved mammoth overlying a pool of liquid mammoth blood. In the wake of recent success creating human embryonic clones as well as the current debate over the ethics of “de-extinction” by cloning,1 visions of a Jurassic Park reality immediately began dancing across headlines.
“We were really surprised to find mammoth blood and muscle tissue. It is the first time we managed to obtain mammoth blood,” Grigoriev said. “The blood is very dark; it was found in ice cavities below the belly and when we broke these cavities with a poll pick, the blood came running out. Interestingly, the temperature at the time of excavation was –7 to –10 degrees Celsius [19.4 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (+)]. It may be assumed that the blood of mammoths had some cryoprotective properties.”2
Michael Oard, author of Frozen in Time: The Woolly Mammoths, the Ice Age, and the Biblical Key to their Secrets as well as the children’s book Uncovering the Mysterious Woolly Mammoth: Life at the End of the Great Ice Age, comments that any sort of biological antifreeze “would be unique in a mammal of this size, although it has been discovered in ground squirrels at blood temperatures down to only –3 degrees Celsius. Other organisms also have natural antifreeze but [none sufficient for temperatures] that cold.” Grigoriev reports they “tried to freeze the substance to –17 degrees Celsius and it remained liquid,” Oard notes. Thus it was “a supercooled liquid.” While the possibility of a biological antifreeze bears investigation, Oard points out that the liquid was “not found in the carcass, but in the ice below the carcass. . . . There is the question that it is not pure blood but is contaminated, so further analysis is warranted.” University of Michigan’s Daniel Fisher, who has worked with Grigoriev in the past, agrees, saying, “Whether it is exactly blood, and only blood, will of course require a little more analysis, including some microscopic examination.”
Nevertheless, Oard notes, if the mammoth did have a biological antifreeze, it would be “an amazing adaptation . . . that shows creation with design.” Canadian researchers, comparing fragments of mammoth DNA to that of the Indian elephant, reported in 2010 that mammoth hemoglobin has an unusually low oxygen affinity at low temperatures, an adaptation that allowed woolly mammal hemoglobin to release oxygen to tissues efficiently despite frigid conditions.3 Thus, it is already apparent that mammoth blood possessed at least one adaptation for extreme cold, and analysis of this liquid could reveal another.
Kevin Campbell was involved in reconstructing the gene for mammoth hemoglobin. He says, “If the fluid (‘blood’) sample is as well preserved as the muscle, . . . there is the possibility that red blood cells are still intact. . . . The first step—from an oxygen-binding study perspective—is to look for red blood cells and then isolate hemoglobin from all the other proteins/cell debris in the sample. Since the sample was collected from outside the body, it is likely that there is also ‘contamination’ from myoglobin and possibly bacteria (for example). Based on the color alone, I think it is pretty safe to say that there is indeed a fair amount of hemoglobin (and possibly myoglobin) in the vials.”
“Many insects (and some vertebrates) are able to avoid freezing at far colder temperatures via the expression of antifreeze peptides/glycoproteins and (largely carbohydrate-based) cryoprotectants, which can dramatically lower the supercooling point (roughly equivalent with the freezing point). If mammoth blood had this trait, they would be the only known mammalian example of this to my knowledge,” Campbell says. “I highly (very highly) doubt that circulating mammoth blood was able to supercool to –17ºC—though it is worth testing the samples to see why they are still ‘fluid.’”
Mammalian body fluids ordinarily freeze at –0.6ºC. This liquid, being found outside the body, may have become concentrated in the arid Arctic air, causing it to remain liquid at even lower temperatures than it would have as circulating blood.
This mammoth has been partially scavenged. “The upper torso and two legs, which were in the soil, were gnawed by prehistoric and modern predators and almost did not survive,” Grigoriev said. “The forelegs and the stomach are well preserved, while the hind part has become a skeleton.”4 Based on the teeth, he estimates this female mammoth was 50–60 years old when she died.
While this mammoth is not intact like the famous baby mammoth Lubya discovered in 2007, Grigoriev says the appearance of the remaining parts suggests that it is “the best preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology.” He says, “The fragments of muscle tissues, which we’ve found out of the body, have a natural red color of fresh meat.” Grigoriev suspects “the reason for such preservation is that the lower part of the body was underlying in pure ice, and the upper part was found in the middle of tundra.”2 As a result, the protected parts “did not defrost and then freeze again.” While Lubya remains the most intact mammoth specimen ever recovered, Lubya’s carcass had undergone a great deal of breakdown of tissues at the cellular level. Other less intact mammoths (like Khroma and Yuka), and hopefully this one, appear to have frozen soon after death and are therefore better preserved at the cellular level.
Mammoth experts from many quarters agree this appears to be an incredible find but are for now withholding judgment regarding the nature and significance of the findings. The team collected “all possible samples: samples of blood, blood vessels, glands, soft tissue, in a word—everything that we could.” Then they transported the carcass overland (and over ice) to a mainland icehouse so that it would not defrost. They plan to examine it there with an international team of colleagues later this summer.
Given the degree of preservation, Grigoriev said, “This find gives us a really good chance of finding live cells,” though he realizes “even in such a good condition of the carcass the chances of this [finding at least one living cell preserved] are small.” A South Korean group at Sooam Biotech Research Foundation has long sought to clone a mammoth. However, cloning requires more than knowledge of an animal’s complete genome—and even that would be hard to come by. Cloning would require an actual living cell. Its nucleus, containing intact mammoth DNA, would have to be transplanted into a donor egg (oocyte) from an elephant. The resulting fused cell, once coaxed to behave as an embryo, would then be placed in the uterus of a surrogate elephant mother. Such an animal would not, of course, have access to the sort of environmental influences the originals enjoyed. And even under the best of circumstances, cloned animals are prone to life-shortening health problems.
Most experts believe this mammoth is unlikely to have intact, clone-able DNA. Fisher says, “In general, ancient DNA is highly fragmented and by no means ‘ready to go’ into the next mammoth embryo.” After all, reconstructing the ancient gene sequence for specific proteins like hemoglobin from DNA fragments, as Campbell and colleagues have done, is a far cry from finding an entire genome intact. “Even under the best circumstances, DNA in long-dead specimens, if it has been preserved at all, persists in exceedingly small amounts,” Hofreiter and Campbell write. “It is also highly fragmented and riddled with chemical damage.” 3
Ancient DNA expert Beth Shapiro of the University of California, Santa Cruz, concurs. “I don’t think it’s impossible that there is some blood in such a well-preserved find.” However, she adds, “I strongly, strongly suspect that there will be zero intact cells in the find, regardless of whether blood is preserved. Without an intact, functional cell—one that can be de-differentiated into a stem cell in a petri dish—one cannot clone this animal.”5 Because DNA begins to breakdown at death, the best most scientists would hope for would be a patchwork of genomic data, not even a complete genome sequence.
Shapiro says it is unfortunate that media-driven “cloning hype”5 eclipses the value of the information that may realistically be obtained from this exciting discovery.
Nevertheless, while we’re a long way—and probably infinitely far away—from “Mammoth Park” or even “Molly the mammoth clone,” the similarity of elephants and mammoths suggests they are varieties of the same created kind. And given that mammoths seem to have had a cold-adapted hemoglobin and may have had some sort of biological antifreeze, the woolly mammoths illustrate the sort of adaptive variation that can occur within a created kind of animal.
Mammoths could thrive in the post-Flood Ice Age, which was brought on by the unique conditions associated with the aftermath of the global Flood. So why do mammoths not roam the earth today? Read more about how dramatic climactic changes later in the Ice Age likely caused mammoth extinction at “Chapter 16: Extinction of the Woolly Mammoth.”
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