Mammoth article Q&A – Dr. Edward M. Berger, Biology Professor, Dartmouth

This is the second post related to the article I wrote in the Valley News regarding mammoths and the exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science.  Like Dr. Sloboda (post further below), Dr. Berger has also graciously enabled me to include more of his comments for that article here.  His responses to my questions took place through email in 2012.

Dr. Edward Berger has been a Professor of Biology at Dartmouth since 1984.  According to his CV, he has “reviewed manuscripts, grant proposals, fellowship proposals, textbook chapters and outlines for textbooks.”  Some of those publications include Cell, Nature, and Genetics.

From 1969 – 2000, he was regularly asked to speak at universities, institutes and conferences throughout the US and Internationally. 

He was Visiting Research Professor at the University of Patras, Greece, in 1981 and between 1986-87, he was Program Director for Cell Biology at the National Science Foundation.

In 1992, he was a panelist on Science Friday (currently a syndicated program of NPR). Among his many professional associations, he is an elected member of the Human Genome Project.

He was one of the very first Dartmouth professors to respond to me.  Given his expertise in genetics, I was thrilled!
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?

CLONING EXTINCT ANIMALS IS NO DIFFERENT THAN MAINTAINING NEAR EXTINCT SPECIES IN ZOOS. NEITHER ARE IN THEIR NATURAL ENVIRONMENT/HABITAT AND EXIST ONLY BECAUSE THEY ARE VALUED BY PEOPLE.

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

HOPEFULLY YES, IN TERMS OF LEARNING ABOUT THEIR BEHAVIOR, PHYSIOLOGY, METABOLISM, ETC

3. What would be the disadvantages of the above?

DISAPPOINTMENT

4. Some people say that cloning [extinct species] won’t happen in our lifetime; others say that it could happen within the next decade or so.  What do you think and why? What technology is needed in order to do this?

NOT LIKELY. INTACT NUCLEI ARE NOT GOING TO BE AVAILABLE, AND THE JURASSIC PARK MODEL IS PURE BUT HIGHLY ENTERTAINING FANTASY

5. 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?

WE DON’T HAVE A CLUE REGARDING THE QUALITATIVE OR QUANTITATIVE GENETIC DIFFERENCES BETWEEN AN ELEPHANT AND MAMMOTH, OR BETWEEN A DINOSAUR AND  BIRD. IT’S LIKE ASKING WHETHER YOU CAN TURN A PIGS EAR INTO A SILK PURSE. IS THERE ANY PRECEDENT FOR THAT IDEA?

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

IT BREAKS DOWN, EVEN IN AMBER WHERE OXYGEN CAN PENETRATE AND RESULT IN DNA BREAKDOWN. ONE CAN RECOVER SNIPPETS, BUT NOT ENOUGH TO RECONSTRUCT A GENOME

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?

THEORETICALLY, NO. THE EGG OF AN ELEPHANT, SUPPORTING THE DEVELOPMENT OF A MAMMOTH NUCLEUS WOULD RESULT IN A MAMMOTH IN ONE GENERATION…MUCH OF EARLY DEVELOPMENT IS PROGRAMMED BY MATERNAL GENES ACTING IN THE FERTILIZED EGG, PLUS THERE ARE GENETIC DETERMINANTS IN CELL ORGANELLES THAT COME DIRECTLY FROM THE EGG.

Article I wrote in the Valley News which includes comments from this Q&A from Dr. Berger: 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