Despite this week's breathless stories heralding the discovery of mammoth blood and the prospect of recreating the shaggy beasts, relatively little is known about the find.
Like other previously discovered mammoths, the roughly 10,000-year-old specimen recently found among Russia's Novosibirsk Islands remained wonderfully intact in the northern deep freeze. The old female mammoth appears to preserve a great extent of soft tissues over the carcass, according to early reports. But a peculiar liquid found around the carcass is what has been making headlines.
North-Eastern Federal University mammoth expert Semyon Grigoriev, who spearheaded the excavation of the mammoth, has publicly speculated that this fluid is mammoth blood that may contain viable cells. This would seem to bring the possibility of resurrecting a mammoth closer than ever before, but the scientific truth is that we're still a long way from even hoping for such a feat.
Beth Shapiro, an expert on ancient DNA at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says she is "super excited" about the find of such a large, relatively intact mammoth, adding, "I don't think it's impossible that there is some blood in such a well-preserved find."
Despite that chance, though, Shapiro says, "I strongly, strongly suspect that there will be zero intact cells in the find, regardless of whether blood is preserved."
That dampens dreams of seeing mammoths walk again. "Without an intact, functional cell—one that can be de-differentiated into a stem cell in a petri dish—one cannot clone this animal," she says.
And Shapiro laments that the focus on cloning has distracted the public from the great deal of useful biological information the new mammoth might really provide researchers.
"I'm even a little bit sad, but not surprised, about all the cloning hype that has immediately come out," Shapiro says, "as I think it detracts from the real work that paleontologists, molecular biologists, physiologists, et cetera, could do with such an important find. The media are crying wolf."
When mammoths make news, though, the prospect of cloning them always follows. The reality is messier.
"We are still a great distance away from cloning anything like a mammoth," Macphee says. A critical step is piecing together a complete genetic profile of a mammoth, a problem that the new mammoth fluid won't solve, no matter what it turns out to be.
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