Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Scientists working to bring woolly mammoth back to life


Ever wonder what it would look like to see a real woolly mammoth up and walking around?

You might not have much longer to wait.  I opened up my most recent email update from the SingularityWeblog and found this barnburner bit of news: Scientists to Resurrect Woolly Mammoth.  Is Kurzweil's Father Next?  More on Kurzweil in a moment.

It seems that a recent thaw in Siberia has allowed for Russian scientists to locate large amounts of mammoth remains.  The idea is that if enough DNA can be gleaned from this biological matter then it can be implanted in an elephant egg.  The resultant embryo would be carried to term inside an elephant.   Then badda-bing badda-bang...the woolly mammoth rises again.

It's not as over the top as it sounds.  Mammoths evolved from the hairless elephants of Africa as they moved into the colder climes of Eurasia and North America.  There's a good chance that this infant woolly mammoth could be carried and delivered by an elephant and then fed with elephant milk.

This is not to say that obstacles don't exist.  One of the scientists on the team said, "The technology to extract and clone the nucleus of a cell already exists, but finding good quality samples, such as tissues, skins, muscles or bone marrows, has been the barrier in cloning prehistoric mammals."  It still might be a barrier.

I'm certain that somewhere out there, someone is asking the not altogether unreasonable question of "why are they doing this?"  Indeed, is it just for giggles?  Is this really an ethical undertaking?  Let's face it.  When someone starts talking about cloning animals from prehistoric times, we immediately imagine velociraptors running wild and free thanks to images placed in our collective heads by Crichton and Spielberg.  While I don't think that things will get quite that wild and woolly (yes, pun intended), we do need to consider whether or not this cloning experiment needs to be undertaken.

Presumably, the logical extension of this exercise would be to see how it can benefit humans.  That's where Ray Kurzweil comes in.  Kurzweil, pioneering technologist and unofficial spokesman for all things singularity, has openly stated that he intends to bring his deceased father back to life.  While there is much debate about this, not the least of which being the question of "will it really be his father or just a duplicate?", the actual technology for such an endeavor is nigh upon us.

All in all, I find that to be more impressive than the mammoth itself.  There is little to be gained, save for novelty, in bringing the mammoths back to life.  Mastering a process for cloning tissue on the other hand is exciting and full of promise.

It's also scary as hell.



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