Scientists play 'Jurassic Park' with mammoths
In the frozen vastness of the Siberian taiga just below the Arctic Circle, the loud chatter of jackhammers and generators crackles through biting sub-zero air.
At this cold, dark outpost on the edge of the world, a team of scientists is prospecting not for gold or precious gems but rather for a treasure from the Ice Age, an intact body of a woolly mammoth encased in a block of ice.
From its frozen body, researchers hope to extract invaluable insights about the flora and fauna of a bygone era. More important, though, they hope to find DNA suitable for cloning - to be used to revive an extinct species.
It's a groundbreaking test of the basic theory laid out in the film "Jurassic Park," and, if successful, it could lead to the revival of many extinct species frozen in Siberian ice.
Much remains to be done. The science of cloning remains extremely difficult, and the Siberian winter could destroy the work accomplished so far. Yet many scientists are already questioning the project's ethical implications, wondering whether humans should undo nature's work.
"Some people think it shouldn't be done, that it goes against nature. But mammoths lasted in the Siberian Arctic until 37,000 years ago. At least one theory is that humans made them become extinct," says Larry Agenbroad, a mammoth expert who is participating in the expedition. "It would be kind of nice to see if we can revive them."
Dr. Agenbroad says many species can attribute their extinction at least in part to the rise of homo sapiens, and therefore it is partly our responsibility to assist in their revival, if possible. "We have records of how the last two dodo birds were killed by humans," he says, adding that modern-day mammoths would not likely multiply to reach past populations or to cause any major environmental hazards.
But there are serious scientific problems to overcome before such possibilities can even be considered. First, scientists need to remove intact DNA from flesh, soft tissue, or possibly sperm cells of the Siberian mammoth. The project could then hinge on how well the DNA is preserved.