Adventures in Russia – Mammoths, Pleistocene Park and De-Extinction: Charlotte Wrigley

Mammoth sculpture in Yakutsk, Russia, photo courtesy of Charlotte Wrigley

 

We had been speaking for almost an hour when I asked Charlotte Wrigley if the average person understands her research.  To which she simply replied,  “No.”

“Does your family?”

“No.”

We laughed, but I wasn’t at all surprised. Her chosen field of study can’t be defined in a word. It’s too new, too complex.  And what had initially piqued my interest in her research is but a footnote now: mammoths.

She first thought of working on Passenger pigeons, a focus that lead her to the Long Now Foundation in the US.  Long Now (through Revive & Restore) is interested in recreating the bird that went extinct in the 19th century. Recreating extinct life is now referred to as ‘de-extinction,’ but at the time Charlotte was trying to determine her life path, this was not a well-known term. Today, it is synonymous with the fascinating and controversial effort across the globe to recreate a version of the mammoth.  Ultimately, however, that charismatic megafauna is not what drew her attention; it is the ancient world in which it used to live.

“I changed the focus [of my PhD],” she explained in a Skype conversation, “from de-extinction of the mammoth [to the] recreation of the mammoth steppe ecosystem.”

It is that very ecosystem that Sergey and Nikita Zimov, creators of Pleistocene Park, have spent their lives trying to recreate, and it is one of the reasons she traveled to Russia that summer.  

Many people may not realize just how crucial permafrost and its preservation are to our planet.  Global warming causes permafrost thaw, and this thaw initiates an avalanche of destruction.  It changes the local ecosystems, which in turn affects the people and animals who depend upon those very ecosystems.  It causes slumping, landslides, and craters.  It dries up lakes. And it releases a host of greenhouse gases.

According to Adam Wernick at PRI (Public Radio International), “In some areas of Siberia, permafrost extends 5,000 feet below the surface…The top 3 feet alone is estimated to contain twice as much carbon as what’s already in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Equally alarming, permafrost thaw can release pathogens once frozen in the ground. One long-dead reindeer surfaced in 2016, infecting local people and killing a young boy with Anthrax. 200 previously frozen pits containing toxic petroleum waste are now leaking into local freshwater ecosystems.

Given these scary realities, it is yet scarier, that, according to Ed Struzik in Yale Environment 360, “…an estimated 2.5 million square miles of permafrost – 40 percent of the world’s total – could disappear by the end of the century…”

Permafrost is central to Charlotte’s research. And what better place to start than the Melnikov Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk, Siberia.

Charlotte Wrigley in front of the mammoth sculpture in Yakutsk, photo courtesy of Charlotte Wrigley

 

“[The Institute] was quite pioneering back in the Soviet [era],” Charlotte said. “Now, it’s barely funded. That was quite hard to see because they used to be very well-respected there. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, money has dried up. The pioneering research from that Institute is the reason an entire city was built on top of permafrost. The requisite engineering to do so is incredible! And that all worked really well until climate change began to make itself known. Now they’re looking at a situation where they need to start thinking about doing proper repairs to their buildings or evacuating people from these high-rise buildings because something really bad is going to happen. Buildings are going to crack and collapse. Pipes are bursting. Roads are kind of buckling.”

The Finnish anthropologist who owned the apartment in which she was staying introduced her to Gera, a local mammoth tusk-hunter, a mural artist, and an employee of the Mammoth Museum. Gera took Charlotte to that museum, which is where she met Semyon Grigoriev. Dr. Grigoriev offered to show her the Ice Age specimens stored within the museum’s freezer.

“It’s just a walk-in freezer,” Charlotte began, “and then, there in the corner is just a plastic bag with a mammoth in it! Bunched up. Curled up. There had been autopsies performed on it. It had been sliced, diced, prodded and poked. It looked very sad, really. This beautiful creature was just there in the corner. But, you know, they find a lot of them! And this was just one in a line of mammoths.”

Mammoth carcass in the Mammoth Museum, photo courtesy of Charlotte Wrigley

 

Even more exciting, he announced that they had recently found a 42,000 year-old horse.  He and his colleagues were going to perform an autopsy; would she want to attend?

While there were a number of scientists she didn’t recognize, the one she did was an important figure in the de-extinction race: Hwang Woo-Suk.  Based in South Korea, he intends to literally clone a woolly mammoth.  His hope with any frozen Ice Age creature discovered in Siberia is to find useable DNA with which to clone.  Herein lies the challenge: DNA doesn’t preserve well over thousands of years.

 

Autopsy on a 42,000 year-old foal in Yakutsk, photo courtesy of Charlotte Wrigley

 

 

 

On the other side of the world in Massachusetts, George Church and his team are attempting to create a hybrid mammoth/elephant—largely in a laboratory–using synthetic biology.  Their method is to engineer a creature that has some of the traits of the woolly mammoth.

“[W]e don’t necessarily want them to be exact duplicates of mammoths,” Dr. Church explained at a 2018 public talk at the Museum of Science, Boston. “We want them to have some features that make them better for modern life. [For example], we’ll probably want them to have very short tusks so it won’t tempt poachers to come in and kill them.”

Among other ethical concerns, this method relies on impregnating Asian elephants—an endangered species. 

These two teams are not the only groups of scientists trying to reengineer or recreate extinct life, but they are some of the biggest players.  And their work is important to Pleistocene Park, because–if or when they do succeed–the plan is to transport the mammoths to the vast acreage comprising that park.

The mammoth steppe ecosystem relies on the environmental impact megafauna such as mammoths would have on the permafrost.  These hefty animals would compact the ground, keeping it frozen and keeping greenhouse gases trapped inside.  Grasses, rather than tundra, would appear, and these grasses would reflect solar radiation.

Sergey and Nikita Zimov welcome mammoths (or customized, reengineered animals that are part mammoth) to their Park, but at the moment, they are trying to populate it with existing species: musk ox, bison, Yakutian horses, yaks, sheep, Kalmykian cows,  moose and reindeer.

“Their fix for permafrost thaw is to get as many animals on the landscape as possible. This is why they’re not holding their breath for a mammoth because that might be 10, 20, 30 years away,” Charlotte stated. “They’re just getting as many animals as they can and just kind of throwing them out there and seeing what happens. Unfortunately, a lot of them die because you’re moving animals from a southern ecosystem—from southern Siberia, from Europe, from Mongolia—and you’re introducing them to a winter that can reach -50, -60 degrees Celsius.  So a lot of them die, and a lot of them refuse to procreate. [Additionally,] there’s a lot of human labor that goes into trying to force this change. And that’s why it’s fascinating and kind of humbling to see: how much of their lives they give across to that.  It is very much a could-all-collapse-any-moment situation, really!”

“I have reservations about trying to control Nature,” she admitted, “which it is in a sense.  But I can’t deny the passion and the drive. They’re just putting their lives into it completely.  It’s wonderful to see. And it’s an absolutely stunningly beautiful, incredible place: the Arctic tundra, the 24 hours of sunlight, and the silence. There is just complete silence, the likes that you or I have probably never heard. And so it will always be a very special place.”

There is no question that Charlotte regards the Zimovs with great respect.  Her time with them, in which they generously welcomed her into their home, made a significant impact.

“As a social scientist,” she continued, “I’m much more interested in why these humans are creating this world, this ecosystem, at great personal expense and hardship.”

Which brings us back to Charlotte’s field of study: permafrost, climate change, and the various ways in which humans across the globe are causing and attempting to address global warming.

One of the words she uses to describe her field is ‘biopolitics.’ Within that, there is ‘cryopolitics.’  Cryopolitics examines the various structures behind natural and artificial cold in a world in which ‘cold’ is increasingly valuable.  In other words, how do economics, industry, technology and those in power contribute to the web of hot and cold that impacts each and every one of us?  Both Pleistocene Park and de-extinction—at least, such are the claims of those engaged in de-extinction efforts—are attempts to circumvent natural disaster. Ways to halt the permafrost thaw and prevent further climate change. These are far from our only options, however.

Mammoth fossil in the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, photo courtesy of Charlotte Wrigley

 

“This is how I see de-extinction: Paving the way for humans to maintain control of the planet.  I’m not the biggest fan of de-extinction as a practice. I think it is an extension of human dominance. And when I say human, I’m referring to a particular notion within the Western capitalist world that loves the idea of a techno-fix for problems that they have caused!”

Charlotte’s path from Passenger pigeons to permafrost has lead her to author a book to be published at a future date.

“Now that I [understand] permafrost a lot better, I love it!  The media isn’t talking about permafrost in the context of climate change. Not really – although admittedly it’s starting to get better. But it’s always about the ice caps; it’s always about the glaciers; it’s always about flooding. I think perhaps permafrost just isn’t as sexy or shocking as those things, but it is so much more important than people give it credit for.”

Whatever the future holds, it is reassuring to me that Charlotte Wrigley is actively engaged in analyzing the world around us–critical of how we meet the challenges we face and ready, with intelligence and humour, to offer her insights.

 

Connecting with you, Charlotte, was not only an honor, it was enlightening, thought-provoking, and thoroughly delightful! Thank you so much for your generous help, your time, your gorgeous images, and your humour!  I look forward to reading all that you write in the future!

Mammoth fossil in the Mammoth Museum, Yakutsk, photo courtesy of Charlotte Wrigley

 

References:

  1. AFP in Moscow. 12 March 2015. Russian scientists say climate change to blame for mysterious Siberian craters. The Guardian UK.
  2. Andersen, Ross. April 2017. Pleistocene Park. The Atlantic.
  3. Douclef, Michaeleen. 3 August 2016. Anthrax Outbreak in Russia Thought to Be Result of Thawing Permafrost. Morning Edition, NPR.
  4. Heilman, Susan; Church, George; and Mezrich, Ben. 2 February 2018. Return of the Woolly Mammoth. Public presentation at the Museum of Science, Boston. Recorded and transcribed by Jeanne Timmons.
  5. Hogenboom, Melissa. 24 February 2017. In Siberia there is a huge crater and it is getting bigger. BBC – Earth. 
  6. Luhn, Alec. 1 August 2016. Anthrax outbreak triggered by climate change kills boy in Arctic Circle. The Guardian UK.
  7. Mann, Paul. 11 May 2018. Could resurrecting mammoths help stop Arctic emissions? The Conversation.
  8. Pleistocene Park, website.
  9. Radin, Joanna and Kowal, Emma. 2017. Cryopolitics: Frozen Life in a Melting World. The MIT Press.
  10. Struzik, Ed. 21 January 2020. How Thawing Permafrost is Beginning to Transform the Arctic. Yale Environment 360
  11. (unnamed reporter) 17 April 2019. Scientists dissect 42,000 year old extinct male foal preserved in permafrost for cloning – video. The Siberian Times.
  12. Wernick, Adam. 30 April 2017. A bold plan to slow the melt of Arctic permafrost could help reverse global warming. PRI.
  13. Wrigley, Charlotte. 17 May 2018. PhD Student Set to Embark on a Mammoth Journey. School of Geography, Queen Mary University of London

 

 

Further Reading:

 

Want to Recreate a Mammoth? Some Legal Food for Thought

Contemplating recreating a mammoth?

You’re not the first.

The discussion around recreating extinct species (or “de-extinction”) is not new.

But today that concept is becoming rapidly less abstract and considerably closer to reality.

Some scientists have openly admitted to working on recreating extinct species, and some advocate vocally for de-extinction research. A few of these scientists are in our backyard: Dr. George Church is a geneticist at Harvard who openly advocates for the recreation of extinct species. Revive & Restore, part of the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, has de-extinction as part of its stated mission. Others are much further: Hwang Woo-Suk’s Sooam Biotech Research Foundation of Korea signed an agreement with the North-Eastern Federal University in Russia to recreate a mammoth within a specific set of time. The topic has gained so much momentum that it was the focus of a TED discussion on de-extinction in DC last March, hosted by Revive & Restore in partnership with TED and National Geographic.

The authors of “How to Permit Your Mammoth”, published in the January edition (Vol.33) of the Stanford Environmental Law Journal, take an engaging look at the potential legal implications of bringing an extinct species back to life.

This highly readable and incredibly fascinating piece is the work of three people: Norman Carlin, Partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, LLP in San Francisco, Ilan Wurman, Law Clerk to Judge Jerry Smith, and Tamara Zakim, former Associate at Pillsbury Winthrop.

The focus of their article is the law, not the ethics behind such a venture.

In the very beginning, they state that the recreated entity would not be an exact replica of the extinct species. It would, instead, be a “facsimile” of the original, due entirely to the limits inherent within the science of de-extinction.

The key points to take away from this discussion, and which will be relevant for the legal analysis which follows, are these: No ‘resurrected’ species would be an exact copy of the original extinct species. With all methods, the results will to some degree be facsimiles or likenesses of the original species…For purposes of the law, it may make most sense to treat such facsimiles both as new creations altogether…yet also as recreations, in a sense.  They would not represent the true revival of an extinct species, but nonetheless would be living representatives of at least a portion of the range of genetic variation that once constituted that species.

Currently, the known de-extinction methods are:

1. somatic cell nuclear transfer,
2. genetic engineering,
3. and artificial selection and “back-breeding”.

 

 
In very broad strokes, somatic cell nuclear transfer relies on the egg of an existing species—one that is closely related to the extinct species—and the removal of that egg’s nuclear DNA. The nuclear DNA of the extinct species is added into the host egg, and the embryo is induced to develop within the living species.

Genetic engineering, again in broad strokes, relies on fragmented DNA sequences that can be harvested from specimens in museum collections. In a nod to the fictional “Jurassic Park”, this method would insert DNA fragments from the extinct species into the DNA sequence of closely-related living species.

Artificial selection involves breeding those living species that are descended from or related to that of the extinct species and may retain some genetic variation characteristic of the extinct species. Through generation after generation of selective breeding, the goal is to bring about a species that resembles that of its long-lost genetic cousin or ancestor.

Finally, “back-breeding” is a form of artificial selection that refers to the use of ancestral traits within a living species. In other words, one would selectively breed a species to enhance the parts of its genome that it shares with extinct species. Jack Horner writes about this in “How to Build a Dinosaur” with James Gorman. In it, he suggests that chickens are modern descendants of dinosaurs. By stimulating certain ancient genes and suppressing others, he believes we can recreate a dinosaur.

All of these scientific methods, according to Carlin, Wurman and Zakim, play an important role in terms of what laws may affect the facsimile.

Should it be classified as an “endangered species”? And if so, does it fall under the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA)?

Or is it a genetically modified organism (GMO), and therefore subject to GMO regulation and patent law?

The authors assert that “the ultimate objective of de-extinction efforts is not to produce laboratory curiosities, but to restore lost species to independent existence in nature.”

Imagine, then, a herd of Columbian mammoths, enormous animals that need substantial room and sustenance. How would the herd affect the existing ecosystem and vice versa? What kind of competition—if any—would arise for natural resources in the area in which they now live?

Once cannot read this piece, with the questions it inevitably provokes, without a keen sense of wonder and awe.

The article does mention the limits of existing laws, particularly regarding the Endangered Species Act.

Needless to say, the ESA was intended to protect living endangered species. The drafters of the ESA, which was adopted in 1973, could not have anticipated the prospect of de-extinction with twenty-first century genetic technology. Thus, de-extinction presents a classic case of dynamic statutory interpretation, which arises out of a “need for practical accommodation of the [statutory] directive to new circumstances.”

Which leads one to wonder–particularly if one is without legal expertise–why new rules would not be the first objective.

“Sometimes rules need to be changed,” responded Ilan Wurman in an email, “when there is no way to interpret existing laws in a way that effects that change. In those situations we do, indeed, need new rules.”

“Dynamic statutory interpretation has a somewhat more narrow meaning [than simply interpreting or defining laws differently],” he continued. “Let’s say a statute in 1850 was written to say, ‘All eligible voters shall constitute jury pool from which they may be called to serve on a jury.’ At the time, only men could vote, and so women were excluded from this jury pool. But the year is now 1950 — how do we interpret the statute? At the time it was written, it excluded women; but today women can vote. Thus, we ‘dynamically’ interpret ‘eligible voter’ to include certain facts or circumstances that did not exist at the time but which fall within the meaning of the term. We would include women within its meaning.”

The article discusses the recreation of species whose extinction was relatively recent, such as passenger pigeons.

When it comes to something such as a mammoth, however, the possibility of finding viable DNA seems greater in countries outside of the US. Russia has been home to recent exciting discoveries along this line.

“We excluded international law,” wrote Wurman, “because we needed to keep the piece at a manageable length, but also because none of us has any particular familiarity with international law. But there would certainly be some implications for international law as well.”

Norman Carlin emphasized Wurman’s assertion about the length of the article.

“I was surprised,” he wrote, “by how much we ended up finding to say, once we dug deeply into the questions raised by de-extinction. Before we got started, I initially thought the piece would be about half the length it turned out to be.”

When asked about other surprises to writing this piece, Wurman had this to say: “The only surprise was just how significant this ‘facsimile’ concept turned out to be. The whole piece turned on it. Consider the interesting tension it creates — it might be a GMO, and thus worthy of patent protection; but if it’s a GMO doesn’t that mean the ESA doesn’t apply? But surely the whole point of recreating these species is to protect them — so the ESA should apply. A lot of fun legal issue arose as a result of this concept.”

“Norman provided the bulk of the scientific background,” Wurman continued. “He and Tamara worked on the implications under NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act), and I teased out the initial implications for patent law and the ESA (Endangered Species Act). After that, we all had a hand in the entire piece and in putting the piece together in a coherent fashion.”

“Norman had been reading about de-extinction efforts and, given his scientific background as well as his legal background, suspected that there might be something to write on the topic. Our initial model was a rather famous piece from the New York Law Journal on the legal implications of protecting against Near Earth Objects.”

Should someone successfully recreate an extinct species, would any of the three be willing to be part of its legal team?

“I think Norman would be thrilled if he got called on to do some of the legal leg work on this issue in the future,” Wurman offered.

If there is one thing human history has shown, it is that what is once thought impossible, eventually, be it centuries or millennia down the road, becomes a reality.

So although there are innumerable reasons—many of them ethical and scientific—why we are not able to recreate extinct species now, it is not inconceivable that the future might indeed open that door.

And if it does, “How to Permit Your Mammoth” will equip us with a legal starting point.

—————————–

You can read the full article here: http://journals.law.stanford.edu/stanford-environmental-law-journal-selj/print/volume-33/number-1/how-permit-your-mammoth-some-legal-implications-de-extinction

Ilan Wurman and Norman Carlin were *remarkably generous* with their time and their help, and I cannot thank either of them enough. 

How to Permit Your Mammoth – article in the Stanford Environmental Law Journal

FASCINATING!!  I have not yet read this article, but the synopsis is fabulous.

“For purposes of this Article, we treat de-extinction, in some form, as a scientifically reasonable future prospect whose legal implications should be considered in a practical manner. For the most part, we assume that if de-extinction can feasibly be accomplished, someone will undertake the effort if for no other reason than because it would be irresistibly thrilling to do so.”

http://journals.law.stanford.edu/stanford-environmental-law-journal-selj/print/volume-33/number-1/how-permit-your-mammoth-some-legal-implications-de-extinction

Mammoth article Q&A – Dr. Daniel Fisher, renowned paleontologist

When writing an article in 2012 about the exhibit “Mammoths & Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age”,  it was a great honor to be able to connect with Dr. Daniel Fisher.

His bio at the University of Michigan lists him as Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Claude W. Hibbard Collegiate Professor of Paleontology; and Curator and Director, Museum of Paleontology.  Per the Museum’s website, this Museum is not open to the public. It is a research facility.

His research on mammoth tusks has informed our understanding of mammoth life: for example, how well they ate, whether they grew well or poorly, and in which seasons this growth took place.

My first introduction to his work was through the documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth“, written by Adrienne Ciuffo for National Geographic.  He was one of the international team of scientists to work with Lyuba, the best preserved baby mammoth to-date.

Per his interview here with National Geographic, some of their research on Lyuba provided “…the first indication of milk residues in a mammoth calf, the first indication of a neck hump in a mammoth calf and the first evidence that this neck fat served a primarily thermoregulatory function.”

Here is a picture I took at the exhibit in Boston. This is a replica of Lyuba, the baby mammoth discovered by Yuri Khudi and his sons in the Yamal Peninsula, Siberia.

LyubainBoston

Dr. Fisher gave so many fascinating answers to my questions.   I was not able to include all of them in the article. He has very graciously enabled me to share them online below:

1. Can you describe your experience with Lyuba?  What she felt like, what she smelled like, whether she was different from other mammoths you’ve worked with (other than being so well-preserved)?  

At the time when we first examined her, she was frozen, and therefore quite hard on the surface, and with no strong smell.  She had been exposed on the river bank for almost a year, and this meant that she had lost a great deal of her original water content, so this also contributed to her firm surface and relative lack of smell, even as she began to thaw, at the time of our first dissection.  When completely thawed, and when we opened her viscera, her organs were soft and wet inside, somewhat compressed, but otherwise, not so different from those of a fresh carcass.  The smell of her internal tissues was not strong, but mildly sour, which as you probably read, was one of the things that first alerted me to her unusual manner of preservation.

2. The documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth” and the exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science gives some detail about your work with tusks and teeth.  Can you tell me more about how you became interested in that part of Mammoths?  How was it discovered that so much information could be found within tusks and teeth?

I first started down this line of investigation when I was working on one of the first mastodon sites that I excavated here in Michigan.  There was a beautiful pair of tusks found at that site, but they had been bit by the backhoe doing the excavation (for a small pond) and were broken in several places.  On the broken surfaces, I saw a series of very regular dark layers, alternating with lighter-colored layers, all paralleling the surface of the conical pulp cavity at the growing end of the tusk.  It seemed clear to me that these were some sort of growth feature, and their regularity suggested that they might represent features that recurred regularly in time, like tree rings.  I realized that if this were the case, then there might be even more we could learn from the thickness and composition of these layers.  It took several years of work to be entirely sure that these really were annual features, but one discovery led to another, and it’s still unfolding in much this fashion.

3. There seems to be more interest in finding molecular fossils.  Do you see this changing how you collect or work with fossils?  Is this changing how you teach your courses?

Yes, there is more interest in these aspects of fossil material, at least in specimens from relatively recent time periods.  In fact, this doesn’t change our procedures much, because what is required to preserve specimens for molecular analyses is not that different from what is required for the best tissue-level and anatomical study.  There is some change in the content of courses, but these different topics still require their own techniques to handle their own types of data.  We therefore tend to focus most instruction on a discipline by discipline basis.  Students thus get their interdisciplinary exposure through taking multiple courses and working with a variety of colleagues.

4. Part of my article will discuss the possibility of cloning Mammoths. Recently Smart News (a blog from the Smithsonian) reported that Hwang Woo Suk intends to have a live Mammoth in six years.  Do you want to comment on this?  Do you see any benefits or disadvantages to bringing Mammoths back to life? 

I will be surprised if the quality of cellular … really, sub-cellular … preservation is adequate for this.  If only on general principles, I wouldn’t want to absolutely rule out the possibility of cloning, but at this point in our knowledge of these things, it’s a real “long shot.”  There might be some things we would learn if it were accomplished, but it is not self-evident that this would provide clear answers to critical questions.  In other words, learning from any technical accomplishment is more like building a house than opening an treasure-chest.  What you get out of it depends entirely on the design and quality of the study.

5. With cloning, my understanding is that scientists would need to use elephants to do this.  But wouldn’t this create a new species: part-elephant and part-Mammoth? Why or why not? 

There are different cloning procedures being considered, and the somatic cell approach planned by the South Korean investigators could in principle come a little closer to giving you a “mammoth”, but it would still be a “mammoth” … in quotes … that is, you would still rely on some of the cellular structures and developmental “machinery” of elephants.

6. Recently, scientists in Japan reported that they have created fertile egg cells from stem cells.  Do you think this research *might* have implications for bringing extinct animals back to life? Why or why not? 

You would still have to recover viable cells, in this case, stem cells, from preserved carcasses of extinct organisms, and this is the big stumbling block.

7. Do you keep in touch with Yuri Khudi or his family?  If so, how are they doing and do they continue to learn about Mammoths?  (Does his wife still object to Lyuba’s name?) 

We met with one of his sons during later field work and will certainly try to contact him if we are again in the area.  I am in regular contact with museum staff in Salekhard, so there may well be additional opportunities.  From what I have heard, the Khudi family is all doing well.  I don’t know how Yuri’s wife feels now about the name of the mammoth, but even when we spent time with the family, back in 2008, it was not anything that she dwelt on.

8. Are there any questions I haven’t asked that you wish I had? 

Right now, elephants are facing an enormous and growing threat from poaching driven by the ivory market.  If we want to continue to learn about all these animals, elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and their relatives, it is critical that we save elephants.  In another sense, mammoths are also “endangered” — to be sure, they are extinct and now past direct harm from us, but the ivory trade still consumes many tons of mammoth ivory each year, and with it goes untold amounts of information on the biology and environments of mammoths.  The single greatest thing we could do for elephants and mammoths is to encourage use of substitutes for ivory.

1. Article I wrote in the Valley News that includes some of the comments above from Dr. Fisher: http://www.vnews.com/home/3694232-95/mammoths-mammoth-exhibit-mastodons, January 7, 2013

2. Dr. Fisher’s bio at the University of Michigan is here: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/paleontology/research/danielfisher

3. His bio on National Geographic for the documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth” can be found here: http://natgeotv.com/asia/waking-the-baby-mammoth/biographies

4. And the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology is found here: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/paleontology/

Whether to recreate extinct species – recent opinions on Scientific American

If you do follow or have followed paleontology news in the past several years, you know that the question of recreating (or cloning) extinct species is part of the conversation.  I am not supporting these views; I add them out of interest.

Here is an opinion piece from the June 2013 edition of Scientific American:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-efforts-bring-extinct-species-back-from-dead-miss-point

“The idea of bringing back extinct species holds obvious gee-whiz appeal and a respite from a steady stream of grim news. Yet with limited intellectual bandwidth and financial resources to go around, de-extinction threatens to divert attention from the modern biodiversity crisis. According to a 2012 report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, some 20,000 species are currently in grave danger of going extinct.”

(This piece echoes sentiments expressed by Dr. Roger Sloboda in 2012 when I questioned him: please see an earlier post below on this blog)

Here is the response to it in the September 2013 Special Issue of Scientific American from George Church, who champions recreating extinct species and synthetic biology:

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=george-church-de-extinction-is-a-good-idea

Here are some of George Church’s ideas specific to mammoths:

“Mammoths could keep the region colder by: (a) eating dead grass, thus enabling the sun to reach spring grass, whose deep roots prevent erosion; (b) increasing reflected light by felling trees, which absorb sunlight; and (c) punching through insulating snow so that freezing air penetrates the soil. Poachers seem far less likely to target Arctic mammoths than African elephants.”

Here is what is written on the Pleistocene Park’s website. I highly recommend reading all that is written on this link (not just what I’ve highlighted): http://www.pleistocenepark.ru/en/background/

PLEASE NOTE: I am not saying that Church’s comments or opinions are in any way supported by or linked to this park.  I am merely making a connection on my own from what I’ve read.

“At the end of the Pleistocene, steppe ecosystems were the dominant ecosystems on the planet. In Europe, Northern Asia and Northern America the Mammoth steppe ecosystem dominated…Animal species varied from ecosystem to ecosystem, but the roles played by these different types of animals remained relatively constant. For an ecosystem to be sustainable it must have large heavy grazers, such elephants, ruminants such as cows and goats, predators suchs as wolves and tigers etc. Steppe ecosystems were extremely stable, since they developed over hundreds of thousands of years and survived several deep glaciations and warm periods similar to the Holocene…If we want to effect a reverse ecosystem shift, we need to artificially increase the number of animals in a limited area for a period of time sufficient for pasture development. Animals would trample all vegetation including shrubs trees and moss. By fertilizing the soil they would increase the rate of biogeochemical cycling. More nutrients would accumulate in the soil, allowing higher grass productivity. Higher transpiration would keep soils dry. Under continuous pasture pressure and fertilization, grasses would once again become the dominant vegetation, and in combination with various steppe animal species they would form a modern steppe ecosystem, which would be sustainable and ready to expand.”

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