They dominated much of the frozen north for 350,000 years before dying out at the end of the last ice age, but woolly mammoths could soon return to Siberia if Russian scientists are successful.
Researchers in Siberia are opening a new laboratory devoted to studying extinct animal DNA in the hope of creating clones from the remains of creatures found in the permafrost.
The laboratory is sited in Yakutsk, the world’s coldest city, has the largest collection of frozen carcasses and remains of ancient animals in the world.
In total is has more than 2,000 remains from prehistoric animals including horses, foxes and woolly mammoths.
Speaking to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, Semyon Grigorev, director of the Mammoth Museum at the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, said they hoped to obtain cells suitable for use in cloning in the future.
The university has established a new program called ‘the revival of the mammoth and other fossil animals’.
Mr Grigorev said: ‘Cloning – it distant prospect, but now studying the submissions received, we learn amazing facts about the past of our planet and its inhabitant.’
The North-Eastern Federal Univeristy in Siberai has now signed an agreement to cooperate with the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in Seoul, South Korea, and the Beijing Genomics Institute.
Sooam is a leading centre for animal cloning by combining genetic material from one species with the eggs of another after cloning a dog and coyote.
This will be essential for any efforts to clone a mammoth as living eggs do not exist in the species and instead genetic material will need to be inserted into the egg cells of Asian elephant.
Mr Grigorev added: ‘In order to clone a mammoth, three parties signed an agreement on cooperation that could make our dream come true.’
To clone a mammoth, the Russian scientists say they will need the ‘perfect carcass’ – a mammoth that has fallen into thawed permafrost and then been preserved there.
However, their efforts in the past have been frustrated by a lack of suitable facilities in the country to deal with tissue and the slow moving bureaucracy in the region.
Most mammoth finds are now made by professional mammoth hunters who scour the tundra looking for bones and tusks.
Mammoth hunters discovered the almost perfectly preserved carcass of a young female mammoth in Russia’s Arctic Circle in 2010.
With distinctive reddish fur, the 39,000 year old baby, nicknamed Yuka, was found surrounded in a pool of her own frozen blood and appears to have been killed by a predator of some kind.
Palaeontologists said the meat of the animal was still red when it was discovered.
Scientists had hoped to use samples from the mammoth to extract cells and DNA that might help them in their efforts to clone the animal and resurrect her species.
However, due to a lack of suitable laboratories, samples from the mammoth had to be sent abroad. It took 10 months for the carcass to be sent to Dr Grigorev’s team after it had been excavated.
Paper work delays meant they were only able to take samples, which were then sent to a laboratory in Korea, from the mammoth after another five months had passed.
Dr Grigorve said: ‘So by the time we took the samples to our colleagues in Korea, they represent a withered blackened pieces.
‘We hope that will not happen again – now we have the opportunity to immediately put the tissue in a nutrient medium, and, if they would live cell, about three weeks she starts to share.’
Even if they do manage to obtain the right sample, it will not guarantee the scientists success.
Often DNA and entire cells disintegrate when mammoth tissue is defrosted.
If they do manage to get enough genetic material, however, the researchers say they will attempt to transplant it into the egg of an Asian elephant, the closest living ancestor of mammoths.
Earlier this year researchers at Harvard University announced they had managed to copy 14 genes from a woolly mammoth into the genome of an Asian elephant.
However, this is still a long way from being able to resurrect an extinct species.
Some say mammoth-elephant hybrid may be a more realistic prospect, but even this is controversial. In many cases the success rate at producing viable embryos that grow to full term is poor.
Animals produced using such cloning techniques are often beset with health problems.
However in the meantime Mr Grigorev and their colleagues are using their facilities to learn more about the extinct species.
Such findings may also help to find the right habitat for mammoths should they ever be successfully cloned.
They believe that Siberia may provide the perfect habitat. Around 20 years ago biologist Sergey Zimov created the so-called Pleistocene Park in Russia on the lower reaches of the Kolyma River on the border with the Chukotka.
However the region is different from the time when mammoths once roamed the area. The once lush grassland steppes have been replaced by moss and small bushes.
Mr Grigorev said: ‘It is clear that the system is changing.’
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