I Want a Franken-Mammoth.

20 11 2008

I’m generally not one who likes tinkering with Mother Nature. But living in Alaska brings with it a sense of adventure, and possibility, and the limitless imagination that comes with vast landscapes at your doorstep. Ever since I came to Alaska, I have had a secret fantasy. I want a mammoth. Not personally, but I want Alaska to have a mammoth, or a whole herd of them. I want Jurassic Park, only with herbivores.

In the spirit of this fantasy, I even purchased a clump of mammoth hair that was excavated from the permafrost up by Nome, Alaska, where the old land bridge used to connect this continent to Russia. If Sarah Palin had lived 12,000 years ago, she could have WALKED to Russia from her house.

I bought the clump of hair not to try to create a franken-mammoth in my basement, but just to hold it, and to marvel how much the soft undercoat felt like the musk-ox wool that, in Alaska, is known as qiviut. These creatures got their outerwear from the same place. And unlike cold, hard dinosaur bones, or fossilized impressions of fish in ancient mud, this was the real thing. You could actually know what a mammoth felt like. You knew what color it was. You could see the guard hairs, all crinkly and thick, and the actual sense of a living mammoth was literally within your grasp.

I’ve toyed with fantasies about giving the endangered Siberian tiger a safe place to live in Alaska, and I’ve wondered what would happen if penguins were transplanted here under cover of night, and if they could survive. But the mammoth dream was so much bigger. It was epic.

So when I saw the article in today’s Anchorage Daily News entitled “Regenerating a Mammoth for $10 Million”, the hair stood up on the back of my neck, and my first thought was, “I need another Paypal button.”

Scientists are talking for the first time about the old idea of resurrecting extinct species as if this staple of science fiction is a realistic possibility, saying that a living mammoth could perhaps be regenerated for as little as $10 million.

The same technology could be applied to any other extinct species from which one can obtain hair, horn, hooves, fur or feathers, and which went extinct within the last 60,000 years, the effective age limit for DNA.

Though the stuffed animals in natural history museums are not likely to burst into life again, these old collections are full of items that may contain ancient DNA that can be decoded by the new generation of DNA sequencing machines.

If the genome of an extinct species can be reconstructed, biologists can work out the exact DNA differences with the genome of its nearest living relative. There are talks on how to modify the DNA in an elephant’s egg so that after each round of changes it would progressively resemble the DNA in a mammoth egg. The final-stage egg could then be brought to term in an elephant mother, and mammoths might once again roam the Siberian steppes.

Considering the fact that human hunting was a likely factor in the mammoth’s extinction, it can be argued that we owe them. And while we’re at it, we could pay off our karmic debt to the carrier pigeon, the ivory billed woodpecker, the dodo, and the woolly rhinoceras which also once roamed Alaska.

And while this controversial science offers the possibility of reconstructing a Neanderthal, whose extinction we also had a part in, I’m happy to begin small (or big, depending on how you look at it) with a herd of mammoth taking up residence in ANWR. It might be a great way to keep the area “green” while encouraging tourism and making a ton of money from a renewable resource.

This has definite possibilities.

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