40,000-year-old blood brings mammoth cloning closer

40,000-year-old blood brings mammoth cloning closer
Dr Tori Herridge with the mammoth. Credit: Channel 4 Television

Mammoth cloning is closer to becoming a reality following the discovery of blood in the best-preserved specimen ever found.

An autopsy on a 40,000-year-old mammoth has yielded blood that could contain enough intact DNA to make cloning possible, galvanising scientists who have been working for years to bring back the extinct elephant relative.

Tests are still being conducted on the blood to see if it will yield a complete genome – the genetic code necessary to build an organism.

Blood and guts

The mammoth (nicknamed Buttercup) was discovered in 2013 on Maly Lyakhovsky Island in northern Siberia and excavated from the permafrost. The flesh was remarkably well-preserved, and oozed a dark red liquid when scientists cut into it.

That liquid has now been confirmed as blood, following an autopsy conducted by scientists including Museum palaeobiologist Dr Tori Herridge.

'As a palaeontologist, you normally have to imagine the extinct animals you work on,' said Dr Herridge.

'So actually 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.'

The full results of the autopsy will be shown in the Channel 4 documentary Woolly Mammoth - The Autopsy, on Sunday 23 November at 20.00.

40,000-year-old blood brings mammoth cloning closer
Model of a mammoth found in Essex

The South Korean firm Sooam Biotech Research Foundation is leading the research project.

Life and death of a mammoth

The blood was not the only remarkable finding of the autopsy. Analysis of the mammoth's tusks revealed it was a female who had been through at least eight successful calving events.

Rates of tusk growth depend on whether the female is pregnant or lactating, and from Buttercup's tusks the team were able to tell that at least one of her calves had died.

Analysis of her teeth show that Buttercup died in her fifties. The molar teeth of mammoths and elephants, which are closely related, are replaced six times throughout their lives. Once the last set wears down, the animal generally starves and dies.

However, it was determined that Buttercup met her end by becoming trapped in a peat bog and getting eaten alive by predators. Despite her brutal death she was incredibly well-preserved, thanks oxygen-free environment of the peat bog and the freezing process.

'The information gleaned from Buttercup's autopsy about her life and death, and the future discoveries that will come from analyses of her muscles and internal organs, will add to our understanding of these magnificent Ice Age beasts,' said Dr Herridge.

If we can clone - should we?

The information learnt about the lives of mammoths is exciting in itself, but it is the potential for cloning that has captured the most attention.

However, while we are now closer to the reality of creating a living mammoth than ever before, Dr Herridge thinks that it may not be a good idea.

'I doubt that there are many people in the world who would like to see a real-life as much as I do. And yet I think cloning one would be ethically flawed,' she wrote in an opinion piece for the Guardian this week.

A major objection to mammoth cloning is the fact that endangered Asian elephant surrogates would be required to birth a live mammoth baby. It is likely that many surrogates would be needed before the first successful birth.

'Does the potential benefit to humanity of cloning a mammoth outweigh the suffering an Asian elephant surrogate mother might experience? I've yet to hear a convincing argument that it does,' wrote Dr Herridge.

'So, why should we clone a ? Because it would be cool to see one? That's not going to cut it, I'm afraid.'


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User comments

Nov 24, 2014
"So, why should we clone a mammoth?" - McMamoth burgers.

Nov 24, 2014
Hey Hayley (author), Channel 4 hunh? Well your channel four and my channel four may be different networks, so, in the future, you might want to consider listing the network instead of the channel.

Nov 24, 2014
"...the suffering an Asian elephant surrogate mother..." typical British PC nonsense. Would an Asian elephant birthing a mammoth suffer? There is no evidence to suggest they would suffer more than a regular birth. If they use Asian elephants, the scientists should contribute to their well-being - and I suspect scientists would not want it any other way. Could we not benefit both species? To scuttle the great feat of cloning a mammoth for that reason is short-sighted.

Nov 24, 2014
Blood does not contain DNA - small point not mentioned in the article.

Nov 24, 2014
I thought Jeff Goldblum already laid out very clearly the dangers of cloning extinct animals.

Nov 24, 2014
Cloning is cool because it can save endangered species.
I hope we will forget about the IUCN Red List soon.
And don't forget that EVERYTHING can be used in a wrong way or in a right way.

Nov 24, 2014
Blood does not contain DNA - small point not mentioned in the article.

It wasn't metioned in the article because it's absolutely not true. Blood is a rich source of DNA. Red blood cells get rid of their nucleus, but white blood cells retain their nucleus. Both are components of blood.

Nov 24, 2014
Blood does not contain DNA - small point not mentioned in the article.

Yes it does-- the white blood cells contain the DNA (the red ones do not once they mature)

Nov 24, 2014
"...the suffering an Asian elephant surrogate mother..." typical British PC nonsense. Would an Asian elephant birthing a mammoth suffer? There is no evidence to suggest they would suffer more than a regular birth..


The concern is not so much for the successful subjects (and even then, 'success' may turn out to be somewhat subjective (remember Dolly the sheep?)), as all the inevitable unsuccessful ones - most cloning attempts result in non-viable pregnancies. The (at present) likely trail of suffering involved for such long-lived and emotionally complex endangered elephants is what presents the ethical quagmire.

While the cuteness factor alone of seeing a real live fluffy baby mammoth might salve most people's conscience, is that justification enough to treat these elephants as we would animals in a meat industry, suffering for a 'greater good'? Anyone for mutant mammoth steak?

Nov 24, 2014
Clone me, Doctor Memory?

Nov 29, 2014
This discovery adds to those made by Dr Mary Schweitzer in 2013, who found intact RBCs and still-flexible connective tissues in dinosaur fossils. It is well recognised that these structures, and the DNA which can be extracted from surrounding tissues, cannot survive, even in the best of conditions, for longer than 1000 years.
Dr Tori does not point out that these creatures are very much in the wrong place; they are temperate-dwelling, and so should not be found in Siberia, and from what I have said, far more recently than 10,000 years ago, ie the approximate date as generally given for the last Ice Age.
Hundreds of cultures world-wide give accounts of a Great Flood in the recent past.
Waters ejected into space from the associated "fountains of the deep" would have fallen back to earth to flash-freeze these creatures
Herein, the evidence behind those accounts, which, politically correct or not, represent the simple truth of our history.

Dec 01, 2014
'Does the potential benefit to humanity of cloning a mammoth outweigh the suffering an Asian elephant surrogate mother might experience?'

As elephants are nearly sentient (or are they?), it would be inhuman and unethical of us to subject such an animal to an unwanted and unnatural pregnancy.

They're going to have to find a way to do it without an elephant surrogate or forget the whole thing.


Dec 01, 2014

Everyone would be surprised to know that the tissues of the mammoth stayed 40,000 in permafrost are preserved so well. Because author of this article not specified method of dating of this relic, we can safely assume that it is much younger - 3000 - 4000 years in the best case.
However only by one DNA can not be made clone of extinct species. Even to put the DNA in the germ cells of the closest existing species - elephant, there is no big hope to appear mammoth. The reason is that certain DNA can support functions only of cells of a particular species and no one else. It is very specific. This is not the same as to making a copy of the sheep Dolly. So for example the movie Jurassic Park was entertaining, but does not rely on a scientific basis.

Dec 02, 2014
If you're going to clone a mammoth, you'd need to give the mother a second calf in case the first(the mammoth) fails. A single calf dying is "traumatic" to an elephant, but it can be accepted if a 2nd survives.

I think a mammoth would be cool to see, it could possibly be used in cold/frozen climates in the same way machinery is used(or elephants in the jungle), just without the need for oil and chance of mass pollution(in the form of oil, not gaseous).

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