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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."

Just How Much Land Does the Federal Government Own — and Why?

The rough beauty of the American West seems as far as you can get from the polished corridors of power in Washington DC.

Surprising Science

The rough beauty of the American West seems as far as you can get from the polished corridors of power in Washington DC. Until you look at the title to the land. The federal government owns large tracts of the western states: from a low of 29.9% in Montana, already more than the national average, up to a whopping 84.5% in Nevada.

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Can VR help us understand layers of oppression?

Researchers are using technology to make visual the complex concepts of racism, as well as its political and social consequences.

Future of Learning
  • Often thought of first as gaming tech, virtual reality has been increasingly used in research as a tool for mimicking real-life scenarios and experiences in a safe and controlled environment.
  • Focusing on issues of oppression and the ripple affect it has throughout America's political, educational, and social systems, Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn of Columbia University School of Social Work and her team developed a VR experience that gives users the opportunity to "walk a mile" in the shoes of a black man as he faces racism at three stages in his life: as a child, during adolescence, and as an adult.
  • Cogburn says that the goal is to show how these "interwoven oppressions" continue to shape the world beyond our individual experiences. "I think the most important and powerful human superpower is critical consciousness," she says. "And that is the ability to think, be aware and think critically about the world and people around you...it's not so much about the interpersonal 'Do I feel bad, do I like you?'—it's more 'Do I see the world as it is? Am I thinking critically about it and engaging it?'"
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Russia claims world's first COVID-19 vaccine but skepticism abounds

President Vladimir Putin announces approval of Russia's coronavirus vaccine but scientists warn it may be unsafe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced coronavirus vaccine at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.

Credit: Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Coronavirus
  • Vladimir Putin announced on Tuesday that a COVID-19 vaccine has been approved in Russia.
  • Scientists around the world are worried that the vaccine is unsafe and that Russia fast-tracked the vaccine without performing the necessary phase 3 trials.
  • To date, Russia has had nearly 900,000 registered cases of coronavirus.
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