40,000 year old frozen baby mammoth unearthed

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In “Ice Baby” by Tom Mueller, the May 2009 issue of National Geographic announces the recent discovery of a 40,000 year old baby mammoth in Sibera. She is called Lyuba, named after the wife of the Nenet reindeer herder who found her, and is in near-pristine condition, having even her eyelashes. In fact, besides most of her wooly coat being gone, the only pieces missing (part of her tail and right ear) were destroyed after her recovery. Even so, she is undoubtedly the most complete specimen of mammoth to date.

Of course, paleontologists such as Dan Fisher, who has spent his entire life studying Pleistocene mammoths and mastodons, are excited by this find because Lyuba provides the most complete set of data it is possible to obtain, and all from one animal. Before, Fisher and his colleagues had been forced to infer certain states of health from fossils (primarily teeth) by comparing against similar findings in the mammoth’s closest relative, the elephant. But Lyuba was so well-preserved that Fisher was able to scan her, take tissue samples, and even retrieve stomach contents.

A three-day autopsy, during which Lyuba was allowed to partially thaw to facilitate more invasive procedures, indicated that Lyuba was a well-fed one-month old mammoth at the time of her death, indicating that death was accidental. Supporting these findings was a dense mix of clay and sand in her mouth and throat, which she likely inhaled after falling into riverbank mud, leading to suffocation, but also the probable cause of her excellent preservation. Dense mud would have sealed out oxygen and prevented aerobic microbes from decomposing her soft tissue, and then lactic acid-producing microbes colonized her tissues, effectively “pickling” her carcass. Later, the ground turned to permafrost, freezing her as well.

Following Lyuba’s article in National Geographic is another article entitled “Recipe for a Resurrection” (also by Tom Mueller), which discusses the possibilities for cloning extinct species such as mammoths and Tasmanian tigers. Pointing to the recent success of Teruhiko Wakayama’s team in cloning mice that had been frozen for 16 years, and the recent publishing of 70 percent of the mammoth genome by a team led by Webb Miller and Stephan C. Schuster, the article details the hurdles that still remain in accomplishing this long hoped-for feat.

Oddly enough, though cloning offers no hope of bringing back the same individual organism, the article ends with a  pro-death quote from Tom Gilbert, “an expert in ancient DNA at Copenhagen University who with Schuster and Webb pioneered the harvesting of mammoth DNA from hair,” who “questions both the utility and wisdom of cloning extinct species. —  ‘If you can do a mammoth, you can do anything else that’s dead, including your grandmother. But in a world in global warming and with limited resources for research, do you really want to bring back your dead grandmother?'”

The Field Museum in Chicago is planning an exhibition tour starring Lyuba in 2010, with assistance from the National Geographic Society.

Watch Waking the Baby Mammoth on National Geographic throughout the month of May (next airing May 6).

DNA preservation and cryonics

pyreneanibexFollowing the news that mice have been cloned from 16 year old frozen tissue comes an announcement that scientists have made advances in resurrecting  the extinct Pyrenean Ibex. This does not only offer hope that someday other extinct species may be resurrected and returned to nature, it further reinforces the power of low temperatures to preserve life and biological information.  DNA can be extracted from tissue that is preserved with crude  freezing techniques, including cryopreservation with no cryoprotection at all (straight freezing).

Successful resuscitation of cryonics patients requires reversal of the aging process (for most patients) and  advanced molecular cell repair technologies. Such demanding requirements are not necessary to clone a cryonics patient. Although the objective of cryonics organizations is not to resurrect a clone of the person but that particular individual, the recent success stories about cloning animals from frozen tissue highlight that the debate about the feasibility of cryonics should not be so much about “revival” but personal survival.  Biological revival should not present major obstacles.

People usually do not make cryonics arrangements to allow a the creation of a genetic copy of themselves in the future. One use of human DNA storage is to assist with the identification of remains of cryonics patients that have died under circumstances where such identification will be difficult (for example, the cryonics organization only receives a brain). DNA preservation is also an option for people who would like to have a  closely similar pet in the future. Futuristic possibilities such as combination of human cloning and mind uploading to recreate the person come to mind as well.

The Cryonics Institute offers human and pet DNA preservation for members with and without funding arrangements.