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A Mammoth Endeavor

Ian Wilmut, the University of Edinburgh researcher who cloned Dolly the sheep, writes at the Conversation that a mammoth likely could not be cloned the same way.

The isolation of a young female mammoth that was well preserved in the Siberian permafrost led to speculation that those remains could be used to raise mammoths from the dead. The de-extinction movement has also raised the possibility that long-extinct creatures, including the mammoth, could be brought back.

Wilmut, though, says there are numerous technical challenges to cloning a mammoth, a major one being the need for numerous mammoth eggs. The success rate of cloning, he notes, is hovering at about 5 percent for species still under study.

As an alternative, he suggests developing stem cells from the mammoth tissue, and those cells could then be stimulated to differentiate into gametes.

"I've always been very skeptical about the whole idea, but it dawned on me that if you could clear the first hurdle of getting viable cells from mammoths, you might be able to do something useful and interesting," Wilmut tells the Guardian. At the Conversation, he notes that mammoth stem cells could be studied to answer a number of biological questions and examine how closely related they are to elephants.

He adds, though, that any attempt to clone mammoths should be done with their well-being in mind. "It would be essential to provide mother and clone with the appropriate environment of temperature, moisture and diet," he adds. "It would almost certainly be necessary to keep the animals in captivity, so it would be essential to provide as interesting an environment as possible."