Two years ago, a group of reindeer hunters discovered a woolly mammoth buried underneath the permafrost in Siberia. Now scientists are carving out a 33-ton block of ice containing the so-called "Jarkov mammoth," named for the family that discovered him. Then they'll airlift him, using an extra-large helicopter, to a laboratory hundreds of miles away and clone him. (DNA will be taken from the woolly mammoth and injected into the egg of an Asian elephant.)
Larry Agenbroad, a pleistocene paleontologist at Northern Arizona University, is part of the team of scientists excavating the frozen woolly mammoth that will be cloned. Agenbroad simply loves the woolly mammoth; it has been his life for the past 30 years. He is an adviser to the cloning team; he is not a geneticist, so he's not the one doing the cloning.
The mammoth lived for about 47 years and died about 20,380 years ago, according to carbon dating.'
Before the Jarkov mammoth, Agenboard had seen bones but never the full animal in flesh and blood and in place. "I got to pet the hair of an animal I've been chasing for 30 years," he says.
This will be the first time the animal and the chunk of surrounding ice is being lifted out of the ground and then taken to a lab to be studied. Normally the surrounding ice is melted away before taking the animal out. But that process often destroys the animal's soft tissue and creates a breeding ground for bacteria.
Agenbroad got to touch the animal's hair because one of the explorers noticed that some of the mammoth's hair was sticking out of the ice and dried it with a hair dryer.
As far as he is concerned, there is no reason not to clone a mammoth and no ethical struggle involved.
"If we destroyed him, we can resurrect him," he says. "Just the possibility of doing this is part of all the excitement. We thought, 'Let's take a chance.' But we've been trying to downplay the cloning part, even though the media is playing it up."
He thinks there is a good chance that the cloning process will be successful, and guesses that it will take about three years. If they do succeed, Agenbroad speculates that the mammoth would be placed in a zoo somewhere.
And, as for the question looming in the minds of many, Agenbroad says, "A lot of people were afraid we'd have a Jurassic Park scenario with woolly mammoths running down the street. This is not what's going to happen. The team is making only one clone now."