Tuesday, 28 July 2015

How to Clone a Mammoth / Beth Shapiro

4 out of 5 stars
How to clone a mammoth? Well, you can’t yet. So this is not an instruction manual. Cloning requires a living somatic (body) cell from a creature and a living egg from the same or a very closely related species. Mammoths are not currently living creatures, therefore, there will be no cloning of mammoths. Cue relief for all the terrified folks out there.

This was a very interesting read, it covered a lot of ground—not just scientific issues, but the moral & ethical issues surrounding the subject too. I found it to be quite balanced—not overly enthusiastic about cloning but not scared to death of the prospect either.

The most interesting things I learned?
  • Birds cannot be cloned. But there are other ways that they can be genetically modified, as the chicken farming industry has discovered.
  • The closest living relative to the mammoth is the Indian elephant
  • There is a Pleistocene Park in Siberia and the animals in it are certainly changing the vegetation (in a good way, if you think the tundra should be greener & more lush)
  • The only DNA you get out of animals trapped in amber is fungal DNA (sorry Jurassic Park).
  • Working with ancient DNA is very difficult because it is so easily contaminated and there is modern DNA just hanging in the air, waiting to contaminate everything!
  • The most likely scenario is to splice mammoth genes into the elephant genome and produce a mammoth-like animal which could play the same ecological role as the ancient animal did.
The author points out quite clearly that bringing back exactly one mammoth would be a bad idea. They, like other elephant species, were very social animals and having a lone individual would be needlessly cruel. Also, any mammoth would have to be raised by elephants and would necessarily be influenced by that upbringing. Its behaviour is unlikely to be genuine mammoth behaviour. Both extant elephant species are endangered, so using females of these species to gestate mammoth babies is probably not a good idea—they need to be producing more baby elephants, not indulging our desires to resurrect an extinct animal (and with a gestation period of almost 2 years, they are already very slow-reproducing animals).

A very interesting read, especially as I went to the movie Jurassic World on the weekend (the SeaWorld like scene with the Mosasaur is awesome and I finally learned why my online women friends are enthusiastic about Chris Pratt). Plus, I heard on the radio this morning that cattle geneticists are considering splicing genes to make white Black Angus cattle, which would theoretically be less heat-stressed in this climate-changed world we inhabit. Because I had just finished this book, I actually knew a little something about the process that was being described!


  1. Hi Wanda

    I normally have trouble commenting on books I have not read but I will try. I have been reading articles about the attempts to bring back Passenger Pigeons which as you said about mammoths would not actually be Passenger Pigeons but Passenger Pigeon like animals that if released in large enough numbers to behave like real Passenger Pigeons could then decimate food crops across NA until we wiped them out again. Since our efforts to protect living bird species are so half hearted it seems like the money could be better spent buying and protecting existing habitat, but I am old and grumpy, once the romance of it would have wowed me. And now for something completely different, if you have not read Mammoths of the Great Plains by Eleanor Arnason it would be a wonderful work to follow up with after this book.
    It was published in The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection which is at CPL. I found it really captivating.

    All the best.

    1. I completely agree, we shouldn't be resurrecting something that we aren't willing to protect! And thank you for reminding me about Eleanor Arnason--I believe I have that book in my "to be read" stack!