SCIENCE

Discovery of mammoth with liquid blood fuels hopes of cloning

Discovery of well-preserved carcass by Russian team on a remote Arctic island fuels hopes that the extinct Ice Age animal can be cloned

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 June, 2013, 5:35am

A near-perfectly preserved woolly mammoth carcass with liquid blood has been found on a remote Arctic island, fuelling hopes of cloning the Ice Age animal, Russian scientists said.

The carcass was in such good shape because its lower part was stuck in pure ice, said Semyon Grigoryev, the head of the Mammoth Museum, who led the expedition to the Lyakhovsky Islands off the Siberian coast.

"The blood is very dark. It was found in ice cavities below the belly and when we broke these cavities with a poll pick, the blood came running out," he said in a statement released on Thursday by the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, which sent the team. "This is the most astonishing case in my entire life. How was it possible for it to remain in liquid form?"

Woolly mammoths are thought to have died out about 10,000 years ago, although scientists think small groups of them lived longer in Alaska and on islands off Siberia.

Scientists have deciphered much of the woolly mammoth's genetic code from their hair, and some believe it may be possible to clone them if cells in good condition are found.

Grigoryev said the latest find could provide the necessary material. The blood of mammoths appeared not to freeze in extreme temperatures, probably keeping mammoths warm, he said.

The temperature at the time of excavation was -7 to -10 degrees Celsius.

The researchers collected the samples of the blood in tubes with a special preservative. They were sent to Yakutsk for bacterial examination to spot potentially dangerous infections.

The carcass' muscle tissue was also in near-perfect condition. "The fragments of muscle tissues, which we've found out of the body, have a natural red colour of fresh meat," Grigoryev said.

Standing up to four metres tall and weighing 10 tonnes, mammoths roamed huge areas between Great Britain and North America and were driven to extinction by humans and the changing climate.

Grigoryev said the Lyakhovsky animal died aged around 60 between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, and that it was the first time an old female had been found.

Grigoryev said the lower part of the carcass was very well preserved as it ended up in a pool of water that later froze over. The upper part of the body, including the back and the head, were believed to have been eaten by predators. "The forelegs and the stomach are well preserved, while the hind part has become a skeleton."

The discovery, Grigoryev said, gave new hope to researchers in their quest to bring the woolly mammoth back to life.

"This find gives us a really good chance of finding live cells which can help us implement this project to clone a mammoth," he said. "Previous mammoths have not had such well-preserved tissue."

Last year, Grigoryev's Northeastern Federal University signed a deal with cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk of South Korea's Sooam Biotech Research Foundation. Hwang in 2005 created the world's first cloned dog.

In the coming months, mammoth specialists from South Korea, Russia and the United States are expected to study the remains, which the Russian scientists are now keeping at an undisclosed northern location.

Last year, a teenager from a nomadic family in Russia's north stumbled upon a massive well-preserved woolly mammoth, in what scientists described as the best such discovery since 1901. The young male mammoth was dubbed Zhenya after the nickname of the boy who found it.

Global warming has thawed ground in northern Russia, leading to discoveries of mammoths.

Associated Press and Agence France-Presse