Don't expect to see woolly mammoths walk the earth again anytime soon, but don't write off the mammoth revival project as a Pleistocene pipe dream, either: That's the message from a new TV documentary about efforts to re-create the long-extinct species with genetic trickery.
"It's all very much up in the air still," Tori Herridge, a paleobiologist at London's Natural History Museum, told NBC News. "As usual, the pace at which science can progress is at odds with the pace at which a TV documentary is made."
The hourlong show, titled "How to Clone a Woolly Mammoth," premieres in the United States on the Smithsonian Channel on Nov. 29. A slightly different version will air on Nov. 23 on Britain's Channel 4 with the title "Woolly Mammoth: The Autopsy."
The documentary team, with Herridge as a scientific guide, had exclusive access to the Russian and South Korean scientists who recovered a frozen woolly mammoth from Siberia's permafrost last year. The most amazing things about this mammoth were that its meat was unusually well-preserved, and that a reddish bloodlike liquid oozed from the exposed carcass when it was poked.
That raised hopes that researchers could find an intact cell nucleus that contained the full set of DNA instructions for making a mammoth. If that could be done, the nucleus could be inserted into an elephant egg, sparked into cell division, and then implanted into a surrogate mother elephant. The result? A clone that should be virtually identical to the long-dead mammoth.
It sounds farfetched, but that's exactly what the team at South Korea's Sooam Biotech Research Foundation has been doing for years with dogs, charging a price of $100,000 per clone. Sooam is partnering with Russian researchers to do something similar with sufficiently suitable mammoth cells.
Spoiler alert: The researchers haven't succeeded yet. Even though the frozen mammoth, nicknamed "Buttercup," is one of the best-preserved specimens ever found, it's been devilishly hard to find suitable cells.
The mammoth's blood doesn't qualify, Herridge said. "As a shorthand, people call it blood, but in reality what you have is a reddish fluid," she explained. "The researchers didn't find any intact red blood cells at all, but the red still came from the hemoglobin."
One of Sooam's researchers, Insung Hwang, says during the show that mammoth DNA has been recovered from some of the specimen's cells, but so far the molecular strands are too fragmented to use for cloning purposes. Over the next two years, Sooam plans to analyze thousands of additional samples. Last month, the Russian website Yakutia Today said the mammoth revival project might take until 2045 — but the documentary is less specific about the anticipated time frame.
"There is the possibility of finding something that's amazing," Hwang says. "We are very hopeful that this mammoth can give us an accurate genomic map that we can use as a template in the future to possibly bring back the mammoth."
The TV show also delves into some of the findings from an autopsy that was conducted on the mammoth's remains in Russia:
- Carbon dating of the mammoth's flesh determined that Buttercup lived about 40,000 years ago. (Earlier estimates suggested the remains were just 10,000 years old.)
- An analysis of the tusks and teeth, led by the University of Michigan's Dan Fisher, concluded that the mammoth gave birth to at least eight live calves — and may have lost an additional calf. Growth rings in the tusk suggested that Buttercup was in her late 50s when she died.
- Researchers were surprised to find a good number of stones in Buttercup's intestines as well as in her liver. They surmised that the stones in the liver were bile stones, and that she might have swallowed the rocks found in her intestines while she was foraging.
- The autopsy team speculated that Buttercup may have become mired in a peat bog, and then was attacked by predators from behind and partially eaten. That would explain the sediment found in her mouth and trunk, as well as the fact that most of the front part of her body was preserved while the rear part was missing.
The documentary also touches upon what it calls a "Plan B" strategy for reviving the woolly mammoth, or at least genetic mammoth-elephant hybrids.
This strategy is being pursued by a team led by Harvard geneticist George Church. It involves taking snippets of DNA that are associated with characteristic mammoth traits — for example, cold-resistant hemoglobin, a thick woolly coat and extra fat — and inserting them into the elephant genome.
Last month, Church told NBC News that he and his colleagues were making progress on the project and could start testing organlike structures in the lab within a couple of years.
"How to Clone a Woolly Mammoth" goes beyond the cloning project to explore how woolly mammoths lived, what they ate, and what it's like to cut one up.
"Coming face-to-face with a mammoth in the flesh, and being up to my elbows in slippery, wet and frankly rather smelly mammoth liver, counts as one of the most incredible experiences of my life," Herridge said. "It’s up there with my wedding day."
"How to Clone a Woolly Mammoth" premieres on the Smithsonian Channel on Nov. 29. Check local listings for air times.