Mammoth article Q&A – Dr. Roger D. Sloboda, Biology Professor, Dartmouth

In 2012, the Boston Museum of Science had a temporary exhibit on Mammoths that included Lyuba (the best-preserved baby mammoth to-date).  I interviewed a number of professors and people for the articles that were eventually published by the Valley News.  But I was so interested by the information they shared that I wasn’t able to include in the articles.

One of the people I interviewed, Dr. Roger Sloboda, has very graciously enabled me to share some of that info on this blog. Would that everyone could interview Dr. Sloboda!  He is a man of strong opinions, great wisdom, and a fabulous sense of humour!

My favorite quote from him when I spoke with him on the phone was: “I’m willing to bet Romney’s tax rebate that we won’t be able to [clone a mammoth]!”

I asked if I could write up a brief bio of Dr. Sloboda using information from the Dartmouth website.  He sent me the following:

Roger D. Sloboda, who holds the Ira Allen Eastman Chair at Dartmouth, has been a professor at Dartmouth for the past 37 years (a fact he is finding more and more amazing of late).

Prior to arriving at Dartmouth, he received a PhD in developmental biology from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and conducted postdoctoral research in cell biology and biochemistry at Yale. In addition to his research and teaching duties, he has in the past served Dartmouth as Dean of Graduate Studies and as Associate Provost for Research.

Currently, he is doing a year long stint (that has morphed into two…) as Interim Associate Provost for Research.  His teaching responsibilities include courses in introductory biology, cell biology, and biochemistry.  With respect to science education, he is the PI on an award from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and as such directs an innovative teaching program aimed at retaining undergraduates in the sciences.

Prof. Sloboda was also named an Education Fellow in the Life Sciences by the National Academies (with Dartmouth colleague F. John Kull, with whom he teaches the HHMI course mentioned above). Education Fellows represented 19 American colleges and universities that worked together to design strategies for enhancing undergraduate biology education. 

Finally, Sloboda also conducts research currently funded by the National Science Foundation, studying the assembly and disassembly of the flagella of the green alga, Chlamydomonas. The fact that the flagella of this organism are almost identical in composition and function to human flagella, yet humans are separated from Chlamydomonas by several billion years of evolution, leaves him almost (but not quite) speechless every time he thinks about it.

1. How do you feel about (if you’re comfortable discussing this–or: what do you hope people will consider when deciding whether we should engage in) cloning extinct animals? Why?

WELL, I DON’T REALLY THINK MUCH OF THIS.  IF YOU WANT ME TO STRETCH FOR AN ANSWER, PERHAPS AN EXTINCT ORGANISM HAS SOME BIOCHEMICAL FUNCTION, LOST BY EVOLUTION IN TODAY’S ANIMALS, THAT MIGHT BE USEFUL FOR US TODAY.  BUT TO ME, CLONING EXTINCT ANIMALS IS A WASTE OF TIME AND RESOURCES.

WHAT WE SHOULD BE DOING IS PROMOTING STEM CELL RESEARCH (BANNED BY BUSH).  IT IS HERE WHERE WE ARE LOSING GROUND TO OTHER COUNTRIES.

2. What would be the potential benefits of cloning extinct animals?  Could this bring any significant understanding to our life today?

I CANNOT THINK OF ANY, EXCEPT THE VAGUE POSSIBILITY MENTIONED ABOVE.  PERHAPS OTHERS HAVE THOUGHT MORE DEEPLY ABOUT THE POSITIVES, THOUGH.  I HAVE TO ADMIT TO NOT HAVING THOUGHT ABOUT IT MUCH.  WE HAVE MORE PROBLEMS TOWARD WHICH OUR CLONING RESOURCES COULD BE DIRECTED.

3. What would be the disadvantages of the above?

SEE JURASSIC PARK…

4. My understanding of Jack Horner‘s How to Build a Dinosaur is that we could potentially bring a dinosaur back to life by stimulating specific genes contained with a chicken’s egg and suppressing other genes.  Why couldn’t the same theory be applied to Mammoths?

I KIND OF THINK THIS IS SO MUCH BULL.  A DINOSAUR IS A REPTILE.  A CHICKEN IS A BIRD, THOUGH EVOLVED FROM A BRANCH OF THE DINOSAURS.  PRESUMABLY, THE CHICKEN HAS A LOT OF GENES IN COMMON WITH THE DINOSAUR, OTHERS THAT ARE NOT, AND OTHERS THAT THE DINOSAUR HAS AND THE CHICKEN HAS NOT.  HENCE, I WOULD SAY IT IS IMPOSSIBLE, UNLESS SOMEONE SHOWS THAT ALL OF THE GENES IN A DINOSAUR ARE PRESENT IN A CHICKEN.

5. Why is DNA so hard to find in fossils?

IT DEPENDS ON THE FOSSIL.  MOST FOSSILS, AS PEOPLE THINK OF THEM, ARE IMPRESSIONS IN ROCKS.  IF FROZEN, LIKE THE GUY THEY FOUND IN THE ALPS, THEN LIKELY SOME GOOD DNA REMAINS.  ROCK HARD FOSSILIZED BONES, LACKING ALL WATER, ETC. LIKELY CONTAIN NO USEFUL DNA.

6. Lyuba (the well-preserved baby mammoth) brought scientists from all over the world together to study her.  Is this a rare occurrence? Do scientists usually work together like that?

SCIENCE IS BECOMING MORE AND MORE COLLABORATIVE, YES.  IN  THE CASE OF THIS SPECIMEN, IT IS THE ONLY ONE, HENCE FOLKS FROM ALL OVER WANT TO STUDY IT, AND SCIENCE SHARES DATA AND INFORMATION.  IT IS HOW SCIENCE WORKS.

7. I understand that, in order to clone a Mammoth, this would need to be done with modern elephants, and it would take a number of generations before a “true” Mammoth was born.  But wouldn’t that be creating an entirely new species?  How would it not be part elephant, part mammoth?

AS I UNDERSTAND THE CURRENT PROCEDURES, IN CLONING THE NUCLEUS OF THE ANIMAL TO BE CLONED IS PLACED INTO THE ENUCLEATED EGG OF THE HOST ANIMAL.  THUS, YOU WOULD TAKE AN ELEPHANT EGG, REMOVE ITS NUCLEUS, THEN INSERT THE NUCLEUS FROM THE  MAMMOTH, AND THEN INSERT THE RENUCLEATED EGG INTO A PSEUDOPREGNANT ELEPHANT FEMALE.  IF GROWN TO BIRTH, THE ANIMAL WOULD BE GENERATED UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MAMMOTH GENES (EXCEPT FOR THE VERY EARLY STAGES OF CELL DIVISION AFTER FERTILIZATION).  IF YOU ONLY HAVE ONE MAMMOTH, AND IF HE IS A MALE, THEN YOU CAN ONLY GENERATE MAMMOTH MALES, AND HENCE NEVER A ‘SPECIES’ THAT COULD REPRODUCE.

Article I wrote in the Valley News which includes comments from this Q&A from Dr. Sloboda: Could Ancient Giants Be Cloned? (Is It Possible and Is It Wise?) http://www.vnews.com/lifetimes/3694233-95/cloning-mammoth-mammoths-extinct, January 7, 2013

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