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Scientists reactivate cells from 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth

"I was so moved when I saw the cells stir," said 90-year-old study co-author Akira Iritani. "I'd been hoping for this for 20 years."

Scientists reactivate cells from 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth
Yamagata et al.
  • The team managed to stimulate nucleus-like structures to perform some biological processes, but not cell division.
  • Unless better technology and DNA samples emerge in the future, it's unlikely that scientists will be able to clone a woolly mammoth.
  • Still, studying the DNA of woolly mammoths provides valuable insights into the genetic adaptations that allowed them to survive in unique environments.

A team of Japanese and Russian scientists has successfully "reawakened" cells from a 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth, according to a study published Monday in Scientific Reports.

The cells came from an extraordinarily well-preserved woolly mammoth discovered in Siberian permafrost in 2012 and nicknamed "Yuka". Using a process called nuclear transfer, the scientists took nucleus-like structures from Yuka and implanted them into mouse oocytes, which are highly specialized cells that facilitate embryonic development. The scientists then used a live-cell imaging technique to observe how the structures reacted in their new environment. They saw traces of biological activity.

"I was looking under the microscope at night while I was alone in the laboratory," 90-year-old Akira Iritani, a co-author on the new study who's spent years working toward resurrecting the woolly mammoth, told CNN. "I was so moved when I saw the cells stir. I'd been hoping for this for 20 years."

Still, this cell activity wasn't significant enough to suggest it'll soon be possible to clone woolly mammoths, which went extinct about 4,000 years ago. For example, the scientists couldn't stimulate cell division in the mammoth cells, but did manage to induce activity that precedes it, such as getting the mammoth nuclei to perform a process called "spindle assembly," in which chromosomes are attached to spindle structures before a parent cell divides into two daughter cells.

Another roadblock is the quality of the DNA samples. Even though Yuka's was in relatively good condition, it was still significantly damaged. It seems vastly improved technology will be needed if scientists are ever going to clone a woolly mammoth, or create an elephant-mammoth hybrid — a more realistic possibility.

The study marks a "significant step toward bringing mammoths back from the dead," researcher Kei Miyamoto, one of the study's authors told Japan's Nikkei news outlet.

"We want to move our study forward to the stage of cell division," he said, adding "we still have a long way to go."

But that doesn't mean research like this is useless. For example, some scientists hope to learn more about the genetic adaptations of the woolly mammoth that enabled it to survive such cold conditions. The hope is that researchers might someday use gene-editing technologies like CRISPR to enable modern elephants to survive in the "mammoth steppe," a massive swath of cold, dry land that stretched across northern parts of globe where mammoths used to roam. Introducing elephants to these areas could actually help curb climate.

Photo credit: NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA / AFP / Getty Images

"The elephants that lived in the past — and elephants possibly in the future — knocked down trees and allowed the cold air to hit the ground and keep the cold in the winter, and they helped the grass grow and reflect the sunlight in the summer," George Church, a Harvard and MIT geneticist, told Live Science at the 2018 Liberty Science Center Genius Gala. "Those two [factors] combined could result in a huge cooling of the soil and a rich ecosystem."

But for some scientists, working to resurrect — or at least preserve — the woolly mammoth is more of a philosophical pursuit.

"It's because of people that certain animals have gone extinct," Iritani told CNN. "It's my duty to preserve species."

Take your career to the next level by raising your EQ

Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.

Gear
  • Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
  • One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
  • EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
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Yale scientists restore cellular function in 32 dead pig brains

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
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Face mask study reveals worst material for blocking COVID-19

A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.

Fischer et al.
Coronavirus
  • The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters, and others.
  • The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
  • Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
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You want to stop child abuse? Here's how you can actually help.

Sharing QAnon disinformation is harming the children devotees purport to help.

Photo: Atjanan Charoensiri / Shutterstock
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The conspiracy theory, QAnon, is doing more harm than good in the battle to end child trafficking.
  • Foster youth expert, Regan Williams, says there are 25-29k missing children every year, not 800k, as marketed by QAnon.
  • Real ways to help abused children include donating to nonprofits, taking educational workshops, and becoming a foster parent.
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Strange Maps

Here’s a map of Mars with as much water as Earth

A 71% wet Mars would have two major land masses and one giant 'Medimartian Sea.'

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