The Mission to Clone the Woolly Mammoth
Whether or not we can clone a mammoth is the simpler question. The big one is: should we?
Ever since scientists discovered it was possible to clone sheep, dogs, cows and even foxes, the technology to de-extinct the prehistoric woolly mammoth has been at our fingertips. But whether or not we can clone a mammoth is the simpler question. The big one is: should we?
As the Earth's ice melts at an ever-increasing pace, frozen mammoth carcasses are emerging from Siberia's permafrost. Once discovered, these mammothsicles are thawed out, and their well-preserved blood oozes out, offering scientists the potential to find a preserved, still living mammoth cell. If viable cells can be found, a nucleus from the frozen tusker will be inserted into an elephant's egg, and ultimately, implanted into a surrogate Asian elephant, which will hopefully give birth to an elephant-mammoth mutt beast.
Some say it might take until 2045. Some say longer. Others say never. But to get to the bottom of this scientific feat, we traveled to Seoul, Yakutsk, and Moscow to follow the mammoth's journey to potential resurrection, and meet the major cloning players with the colossal will to de-extinct a not-too-long-forgotten species.
In a little under a month, we went around the globe and back. We stopped in places where robots can figure out how you poop, and to places where bear skins weren't merely a fashion statement in Bushwick, but a necessity.
We travelled from Seoul to Yakutsk, Siberia: a place known for its gulags, vodka, and locals who are hard as hell. It's a town so remote that frozen woolly mammoths from the Ice Age are lying not too far away. Being Canadian counts for nothing in a place that reaches temperatures as low as -60C and where giant bronze statues of Lenin have ice beards nine months of the year.
I knew we were in for a culture shock when, just before getting on our plane to the Russian wasteland, a particularly hearty looking Yakutian flight attendant asked us (in Russian): "Why the fuck are you going to Yakutsk?"
But it ended up being a wonderful place, with incredibly warm people living in a frozen jungle—and it was actually a lot like Canada. A trip through a fish market filled with prehistoric looking creatures, the frozen pike sushi, and wild dogs cemented it for me: I'm moving there.
Of course, we went for the mammoths. But vodka and insanity followed when we discovered the existence of a unique gray market—one based the shipment of ancient mammoth ivory to China and elsewhere in Asia by minor mafia syndicates, destined to be chopped up for traditional gifts. Some of the ivory carving factories, which had serious sweatshop vibes, had artists who sat around all day hacking up artefacts that should be in the Smithsonian.
At the same time, the mammoth bodies tusk hunters find in the most remote areas of planet Earth were so intact that South Korean scientists were using them to try and clone the ancient beast back into existence. I took a scalpel to the leg of what looked like a mammoth-sized drum stick from a Flintstone's cartoon, and it really bummed me out. Why was I qualified to operate on a pristine specimen, some 40,000 years old? Because Russia, that's why. Don't ask any questions.
South Korea was a trip, too. If Russia frayed my nerves, South Korea weirded me out. In one day I saw seven calves that were all the same calf, a grown man fist and impregnate a cow with a syringe filled with clone embryos, to two adorable Pomeranian puppies named Michael and Jackson—both genetically the same pooch.
In between all of this insanity I found the time shoot guns on the side of Russian highways, got food poisoning from raw crab brain, danced in a museum vodka bar with a perfectly intact woolly rhino (yeah, those existed) rotting nearby, and witnessed a cloned dog warm up to its not-quite-mom.
In short, it was quite a trip, and I hope you enjoy the documentary that came out of it. As Michael and Jackson showed, cloning is here, and it's already gone commercial. But dogs are one thing. Cloning a mammoth is another matter entirely, and only one things for sure: Thanks to a transnational mammoth supply chain, a whole lot of scientists are going to give it a shot.