An improbable race to resurrect the woolly mammoth is kicking into high gear. Japanese researchers arrived today at prime mammoth grounds in northeastern Siberia, hoping to find a carcass in the permafrost. Hot on their heels is a French-led team planning a return visit to two frozen hulks discovered last fall.
The woolly mammoth made its last stand as a species about 3700 years ago, on Wrangel Island in the East Siberian Sea. To raise it from the dead, the teams hope either to clone a living specimen from frozen, long-dead tissue or breed a hybrid by injecting dead male mammoth sperm into the egg of an Asian elephant, a close living relative. Experts admit pulling off either feat is a long shot. "It's a brave idea," says University of Hawaii, Manoa's Ryuzo Yanagimachi, whose lab was the first to clone mice. But he doubts that any mammoth tissue could have stayed chilly enough over the millennia to preserve the DNA.
The odds haven't stopped a group led by reproductive biologist Akira Iritani of Kinki University in Japan from embarking on a sperm hunt along the banks of the Kolyma River in Russia's Sakha Republic. Sponsoring the dig is a Japanese firm, Field Co. Ltd., that hopes someday to help set up a mammoth-filled nature reserve.
Two frozen mammoths were actually found last fall on remote Taimyr Peninsula, 1500 kilometers to the west, by French explorer Bernard Buigues. With a Discovery Channel film crew in tow, Buigues will return to the site with an international team that includes paleontologist Larry Agenbroad of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. Says Agenbroad: "I would rather have a cloned mammoth than another stupid sheep."