The Ethics of Cloning a Wooly Mammoth

You might have come across the reports discussing the attempt to clone a wooly mammoth:

Within five years, a woolly mammoth will likely be cloned, according to scientists who have just recovered well-preserved bone marrow in a mammoth thigh bone. Japan’s Kyodo News first reported the find. You can see photos of the thigh bone at this Kyodo page.

Russian scientist Semyon Grigoriev, acting director of the Sakha Republic’s mammoth museum, and colleagues are now analyzing the marrow, which they extracted from the mammoth’s femur, found in Siberian permafrost soil.

Grigoriev and his team, along with colleagues from Japan’s Kinki University, have announced that they will launch a joint research project next year aimed at re-creating the enormous mammal, which went extinct around 10,000 years ago.

Before I get to the potential for animal cruelty, this seems technically difficult. We’ve had a hard time reliably cloning organisms when stick within a species (e.g., Dolly). It usually takes many, many tries (and failures) before it works.

It’s not clear if maternal effects (i.e., putting mammoth genes and the ensuing developmental program into an elephant egg) will even make this possible–the whole thing might not work. Even if it does work, it’s not clear that mammoth DNA in a elephant egg would give you a mammoth: you might get an ‘elephoth.’

And that brings me to the ethical issue. With the high rate of failure, even if this project works, we would be subjecting elephants, not specially bred lab mice that wouldn’t exist but for research needs, to a two year pregnancy, when most of those pregnancies would result in failure.

That seems dangerous and cruel to the animals in service of a scientifically dubious outcome.

An aside: Five years seems ludicrously optimistic in any case.

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2 Responses to The Ethics of Cloning a Wooly Mammoth

  1. anthrosciguy says:

    This same story has been going around for quite a few years now, with the same Friedman Unit style predictions and lack of plausibility.

  2. You’re probably right about the ethics, but I have to admit in my heart I really actually hope they find a way to do it.

    I’ll tack it up along with believing vegetarianism is more ethical while still eating meat and a large number of cognitively dissonant ideas I unfortunately hold in my head.

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