Four years ago in Seoul, South Korea, the controversial, world-class cloning lab Sooam Biotech had a big reveal for the world: Eight coyote pups, as adorable as they were feisty.
But a coyote didn’t give birth to them.
Their surrogate was a domestic dog, just like with the 600 pet dogs that Woosuk Hwang’s Sooam Biotech has cloned for its customers around the world.
Those eight pups, soon donated to zoos, weren’t just yapping examples of Korea’s cloning prowess.The pups were proof that cloning could be an interspecies process.
Sooam plans on using that technology to help repopulate endangered canine species, like the African Wild Dog, Ethiopian wolves, and American red wolves.
As a Sooam biologist told Tech Insider earlier this summer, the coyote clones were big news in Russia.
Because it meant that the woolly mammoth, last seen roaming around Siberia 3,600 years ago, might have a chance at coming back.
So in 2012, Sooam partnered with Russia’s North-Eastern Federal University of the Sakha Republic to begin searching for a mammoth sample that’s high quality enough to make a clone from. It’s not enough to have a mammoth have intact hair, skin, or blood.The cells and the DNA they contain would need to be well-preserved enough to hold up to the same process that enables dogs to be cloned.
If an intact mammoth genome can be found, it could perhaps inserted into elephant eggs in order to form a mammoth embryo.
So now, every summer, Sooam biologists go deeper into the extreme north of Siberia in search of a molecule-sized needle in a continent-sized haystack. If they’re successful in finding the ready genetic material, it would be a world-historical moment: for the first time, humans would “de-extinct” a long-dead species we only have remains of.In no small way, it would be “Jurassic Park” made real — though not going back quite so far.
Sooam has had pls to bring back the mammoth for a long time.
A decade ago, Sooam’s founder and lead biologist Woosuk Hwang was going through one of the most epic falls from grace in scientific history after being charged with fabricating data in what was once considered groundbreaking stem cell research.
While the “king of cloning”was on trial in 2006, he let it slip that his cloning ambitions went beyond dogs.As Reuters reported at the time, Hwang testified that he’d spent $US1 million on “peripheral activities related to research.”
“Some of the money was spent in contacting the Russia mafia as we tried to clone mammoths,” Hwang told the court. He said they needed pay the mafia in order to conduct their search for mammoth specimens. “But you can’t say that (on the expense claim) so we expended it as money for cows for experiment.”
Today, Sooam’s adventures in Russia are much more official.
Biologist and cloning researcher at Sooam, Insung Hwang, has gone on each of the expeditions into upper Siberia. He points out that Sooam has only gone two full expeditions looking for cells, so it’s a small amount of data to make any conclusions about whether they can find what they need to make a clone.
Sooam has taken a number of steps to give themselves a better shot of finding a workable cell.They have built a mobile lab in Yaktutsk to shorten the time it takes to bring the samples from the field to the lab for analysis. They have also created a bounty system in order to engage locals in the project — if you find mammoth remains and bring Sooam to them, you get paid.
The first result of that system was the “bleeding” mammoth found on Maly Lyakhovsky Island in northern Siberia in May 2013.
“Locals know about [all the remains],” Hwang says. “If you go to Siberia, it’s a treasure chest, because there’s ancient woolly rhino carcasses that are being found, ancient dogs. All these really precious samples, but nobody knows about it.”
But as University of California, Santa Cruz, paleontologist Beth Shapiro argues in “How To Clone A Mammoth,” finding a suitable cell is mindbogglingly difficult.
As Shapiro explains in her book, somatic cell nuclear transfer — the process by which Sooam would create its mammoth — depends on more than finding pieces of DNA.
It requires a cell with a complete and intact genome. And while Shapiro writes that tiny fragments of DNA from a 700,000-year-old Arctic horse have been found, no living cell or intact DNA from an ancient creature has ever been discovered, and scientists doubt it could be.
Cells themselves carry biological material that starts to destroy their own DNA as they die. Researchers have estimated that DNA’s half-life is 521 years — meaning half of the molecules in any given sample decay in that time period. Using DNA fragments from a 20,000-year-old and a 60,000-year-old mammoth carcass, researchers have been able to piece together the sequence of a mammoth genome and know what it would look like, but it’s incredibly unlikely that they’d ever find an intact one.
While that DNA decay process can be stopped in a lab, it would require a moment of perfect conditions — and no other external causes of degradation, including weather, bacteria, or fungi — to stop DNA from degrading in the wild. Looking for that unadulterated cell, Shapiro writes, is “searching for a miracle.”
And she says that there are even more issues with cloning a mammoth, even if a living cell could be found.
No one has cloned an elephant. They take two years to have a baby. And there’s so much we don’t know about their reproductive cycle — things that we’d have to master in order to clone an elephant, much less to hope that an elephant could carry some sort of mammoth embryo to term.
Biologists estimate that the Asian elephant could do the job, since their babies are about 200 pounds when born — the same size as a baby mammoth — and they’re the closest living relative of the mammoth.
But as the 1,095 cloned embryos it took to make Snuppy, the first cloned dog, suggest, clones don’t tend to work out the first time. So it’s possible that you’re looking at a lot of stillborn mammoth clones before one is can actually be brought back to life — and then, what do you do with it once it’s alive?
“It’s not that you can’t necessarily do it,” says Mark Westhusin of Texas A&M, an expert in genetically engineering animals, of implanting any sort of mammoth or mammoth-like embryo into an elephant. “But the logistics of doing it … where are you going to get the herds of elephants that you’re going to use to carry the animal to term?”
Not to mention questions about whether or not the embryo would even implant and whether elephant gestation cycles would work for a mammoth baby, he says.
As we saw with Snuppy, there could be a lot failed pregnancies — and occupied elephant wombs — along the way.
And Asian elephants are a threatened species.Keeping them in captivity and forcing them to become pregnant (with mammoths no less) raises all sort of ethical issues.
But in order to be able to clone the coyote, Sooam had to become the world’s best at cloning dogs. So it follows, then, that if they’re going to clone a mammoth, they need to become the world’s best at cloning elephants, which is a large undertaking, in all of the ways.
When we asked Sooam biologist David Kim if his lab was working on cloning elephants, he had a simple answer.