Wed
Nov 19 2008 4:58pm
I shall call him Squishy

Dr. Malcolm warned us, but we didn’t listen...

The New York Times reports that a scientific team at Pennsylvania State University, headed by Stephan C. Schuster and Webb Miller, believes DNA sequencing machines have made it possible to fully sequence—and even recreate, in flesh and blood—the wooly mammoth, “for as little as $10 million.”

It turns out that hair from a mammoth is a much better source of DNA than bones because the DNA contained within is purer (instead of mashed up into tiny pieces), and the keratin around the hair is able to seal out any troublesome bacteria.

So what would they do with that DNA, once it’s all sequenced? And why would it cost $10 million? Unfortunately, you can’t just create the cells from scratch. But you can find the genetically closest modern relative—in this case, an African elephant—and

modify the genome of an elephant’s cell at the 400,000 or more sites necessary to make it resemble a mammoth’s genome. The cell could be converted into an embryo and brought to term by an elephant....

Hrm. This is starting to sound familiar...

Dr. Schuster says that museums would be an absolute “goldmine” of animal DNA that has been preserved in hooves and feathers.

But why stop there? Sequencing of the complete Neanderthal genome is nearly complete. If a mammoth could be successfully resurrected, it’s possible that the same could be done to recreate a Neanderthal. The scientists are confident that with the advances today there are no technical obstacles...

But before you get worried about poking around the human genome, Dr. George Church of Harvard’s Medical School says that

The workaround would be to modify not a human genome but that of the chimpanzee, which is some 98 percent similar to that of people. The chimp’s genome would be progressively modified until close enough to that of Neanderthals, and the embryo brought to term in a chimpanzee.

Ah, thank goodness. Much less creepy, don’t you think?

[Photo of “The One and Only Stuffed Mammoth in the World” taken by Flickr user tanapon, and CC-licensed for commercial use.]

17 comments
JS Bangs
1. jaspax
Seriously? A living mammoth would be pure awesome. And a cash cow for whoever made it: I would gladly pay $100 to visit a zoo or preserve that had live mammoths.

Neanderthals, though... let's not go there.
Dave Robinson
2. DaveRobinson
Much less creepy? Whole new definition of creepy is more like it.

The whole chimpanzee-Neanderthal thing left me cold; I think because I see Neanderthals as people. A different kind of people but still people.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
As chimps are themselves endangered, I don't think it's less creepy at all.

I think you could find human volunteers to have a Neanderthal baby quite easily.

It would also be a better idea. When I last talked to an evolutionary biologist about the mammoth option, he said that there's actually a lot of information in the egg that isn't DNA but that has an effect, so an elephant egg mammoth might not be a mammoth, but whatever it was would be able to have mammoth babies. You don't want chimp influence on a homo sapiens neanderthalis, not when there are plenty of homo sapiens sapiens around.

I'm probably going to be too old when they try this, otherwise I'd volunteer.
Heather Massey
4. sfrgalaxy
>recreate, in flesh and blood—the wooly mammoth, “for as little as $10 million.”

Best. Reality Show. Ever.
R O T
5. rogerothornhill
What do you want to bet the first WM has Donald Trump's name plastered on its side? Not that Trump is fronting the 10 large, you understand, any more than he paid for any of the buildings all over Manhattan that have his name on them. No, he's not fronting the 10 mil--he's just fronting.

He'll probably make the poor mamm go to his stylist too. Extinction is kinder.
R. Emrys
6. R. Emrys
We could do *real* comparative psychology!
R. Emrys
7. R. Emrys
And now that I've got my inner mad scientist out of the way, second on the human surrogate moms, please. I don't know where Dr. Church got his Affective Morality Meter, but *mine* goes off at the thought of a nonlinguistic parasapient carrying a sapient child. You're going to have humans raising him (presumably); they ought to start at the beginning.
Alexander Gieg
8. alexgieg
Mammoths? Neanderthals? We're thinking small. I want to see pterodactyls, tyrannosaurus, velociraptos (take that humanity!), brontosaurus...
Megan Messinger
10. thumbelinablues
My inner child is jumping up and down going, "I wanna wooly mammoth! I wanna wooly mammoth!" Grown-up brain says that it would probably be a huge commercialized mess. What I would really like would be for someone to donate the $10 million for the mammoth and probably the same again for related costs (mammoth preserve and several tons of whatever mammoths eat, to start with!), and then have whatever people pay to see the beasties go towards park upkeep and charities that preserve endangered species, save the rainforest, and generally do good things for the planet. Still, the country/state/city that gets to host the mammoths would be rolling in tourist dollars....

About the Neaderthals, both options give me the creeps. And Neanderthals were sentient, as R. Emrys points out -- imagine being that Neanderthal, knowing you were resurrected from an extinct species/subspecies for fun and research. (Hang on, I feel a hackneyed short story coming on....)
Jo Walton
11. bluejo
Thumbelineblues: It's Isaac Asimov's "The Ugly Little Boy", just to save yourself the effort.
Madeline Ferwerda
13. MadelineF
Yeah, the chimp option is severely effed up. Neanderthals were sapients, humans are sapients. A human mom can agree with full knowledge of what she's doing. A human mom would have the rights to her child and we wouldn't have any clustereffs with losing funding/interest like with that abused girl who was never spoken to. Neanderthals were big; how would a chimp even survive that birth? Nuts!

I'd love to see some neanderthals born into families that already had a few kids, preferably at least one that was developmentally disabled, so the parents would have experience dealing with unusual kids and the neanderkid would have a lot of examples of how to fit into human society.

Same schtick with wooly mammoths. Bring them back, as part of a solid elephant family group!
Torie Atkinson
14. Torie
@ 2 and @ 3

I hope you know I was being sarcastic with the less creepy bit. I find the chimp option way more disturbing!

Wooly mammoths, on the other hand, might be cool. I bet they could finance the project if they agreed to make teacup-sized mammoths as luxury pets. You all already know what I'd name mine...
Stephen W
15. Xelgaex
@10 and @11

The Thursday Next series features Neanderthals brought back to be second class citizens. And dodos and mammoths... maybe others but I don't recall.
Edward Morris
16. EdwardMorris
Howard Waldrop did a great story about mammoths in the circus, grown of course from mammoth DNA implanted into elephant eggs. Though fanciful, the story points out a lot of good things about cyclical evolution; his theory was that as the mammoth-elephant hybrids bred more mammoth traits into their offspring (fill in the blank)
Torie Atkinson
17. Torie
@ EdwardMorris

How cool! Do you recall the name of the story?

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