Untold numbers of ancient corpses lay beneath the permafrost in Siberia. Preserved by the icy soil of the region, the genetic material found in the animal remains are the key to better understanding pre-historic life and even to perhaps reviving it. A new research institute to be built in Russia hopes to make those discoveries and more.
Next week, from the 11th to the 13th of September, at the 4th Eastern Economic Forum, a proposal seeking further investment will be made by the Northern-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) in Yakutsk for a project to open a “world-class paleo-genetic scientific center” according to the Siberian Times. This project, to be performed in collaboration with scientists from the South Korean SOOAM Biotech Research Foundation, has already secured 400 million Russian Rubles in funding, and it is hoped that further investments in the center will increase investment in Eastern Russia.
The immediate goal of the paleo-genetic research center would be the study of ancient DNA and other genetic material that has long since been lost from the living gene pool. While the study of the genetic material of extinct animals would shed light on how those animals native to the area once lived as well as the links shared between the extinct animals and the animals currently living in the region, the ultimate goal of the work would be to extract viable DNA and recreate extinct animals.
While the permafrost and extremely low temperatures of the Siberian tundra help to preserve the soft tissue of animal remains and the DNA that the tissue cells contain, extracting viable DNA would still be challenging as DNA tends to degrade over time. In order to obtain DNA that could be ultimately used to produce a living creature from ancient genes, scientists would need to blend in DNA from similar animals to fill in any gaps and hope that the result was functional.
Dr. Church, a geneticist from Harvard, has been working with DNA retrieved from a woolly mammoth that had been preserved in ice in Siberia for over 42,000 years. The objective of his work is to merge the DNA extracted from the extinct woolly mammoth and genes from an Asian elephant in the hopes of creating a living mammoth-elephant hybrid. Dr. Church hopes to have brought back the mammoth from extinction by the year 2020 and to establish herds of mammoths back into the frozen wilds of Siberia.
Lyuba is a 37,000-year-old mummified baby mammoth that was found on the Yamal Peninsula in the northern Siberia region of Russia in 2007. Found near the Yuribei River by a reindeer herder, after a thorough study of the corpse, traces of mud were found in the esophagus of the baby mammoth, leading to the conclusion that the baby had died of suffocation in mud when approximately six months old.
Lyuba is just one of the well-preserved soft tissue samples of pre-historic animal remains found in Russia. In the last few weeks, very well-preserved remains of a foal that lived 40,000 years ago were found in the Batagaika crater in Russia. In the region of Yakutsk, as much as eighty percent of the preserved soft tissue from the Pleistocene and Holocene ages have been found. A baby woolly rhino was found in 2015 that turned out to have a strawberry blonde coat. In 2016, cave lion cubs that lived 12,000 years ago were found in Siberia. Just last month, a sample of a species of pygmy mammoth with golden fur was unearthed in Siberia. Based on the number and preservation quality of samples found thus far in the heavily permafrosted area, a rich array of untouched and well-preserved soft tissue samples containing potentially viable DNA is just waiting to be found. As Dr. Lena Grigorieva has said, “There is no such unique material anywhere else in the world.”
With the eventual goal of returning long-extinct animals to life, several questions immediately come to mind. Would this venture even be viable? In 2003, a bucardo (a species of ibex found in the Pyrenees that went extinct in 1997) was brought back from extinction when cells collected from the last bucardo were used to create hybrid goat-bucardo egg cells. The eggs were implanted into living hybrids of domestic goats mixed with Spanish ibex. One egg managed to be implanted successfully and was carried to term. However, the poor baby bucardo died within ten minutes of her first breath. Such life-threatening defects could surely be dealt with, allowing the extinct animals to be successfully born again. But would that be a good idea? Where would such creatures live, and how would they be cared for? Their native landscape and source of food would surely be vastly different or completely, irretrievably, gone by now, so how would the animals cope with their new lives?
Another ethical and perhaps more hard-hitting consideration is what might be done is well enough preserved human soft tissue is found. As has been pointed out, finding and studying remains from ancient human settlements from the north-eastern region of Russia could be very beneficial for studying the unique genetic structure of the long-dead people and learning more about rare genetic disorders. But what would be the implications if the recovered soft tissue samples could be used to recreate living ancient humans?
Whether or not scientists are able to successfully return ancient animals or humans from extinction, there is undoubtedly much to be learned from studying the remains found in the frozen ground of Siberia. With access to the many varied types of well-preserved remains that have been and will likely continue to be found in the area, many interesting and informative discoveries could be made, and each one could tell us more about pre-historic life. A research institute focusing on the study of paleo-genetics in Siberia will lead to new knowledge of what the earth was like over ten thousand years ago, and even to the possibility of animals such as the woolly mammoth walking the earth again.
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