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Fact-Checking a Frozen Mammoth

How could the ancient carcass contain liquid blood?



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Russian researchers recently announced a mind-blowing discovery: a 10,000-year-old woolly mammoth carcass containing blood that resists freezing even at −17 degrees Celsius. The Siberian Times quoted team leader Semyon Grigoriev of North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk as speculating that the blood contains “a kind of natural anti-freeze.” An Agence France-Presse report, meanwhile, quotes Grigoriev as saying “this find gives us a really good chance of finding live cells,” which would be a windfall for his institution's international project to clone a mammoth.

I wondered if it might be too good to be true. But according to the outside experts I contacted, this mammoth really is an incredible find. Some of the reported claims about it are questionable, however.

“They have not found any ‘living cell’—at most they could hope to find what the cloning enthusiasts might call a cell with ‘viable’ DNA, meaning that it would be intact enough to use in the context of a cloning effort,” explains Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan. But he cautions that “in general, ancient DNA is highly fragmented and by no means ‘ready to go’ into the next mammoth embryo.”

Kevin Campbell of the University of Manitoba doubts that circulating mammoth blood could resist freezing at −17 degrees C. Maybe, Campbell offers, the Russian team's liquid sample contains an antifreeze that was concentrated during the preservation. Or, he says, maybe antifreeze-secreting bacteria contaminated the sample.

As for cloning, Fisher thinks other research deserves priority. “For all I want to learn about the lives of mammoths, I have more confidence in our ability to generate new knowledge from the fossil record than in our ability to learn from cloned mammoths,” he says.

Adapted from Observations at blogs.ScientificAmerican.com/observations

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