DNA scholars hope to stock Siberia ‘park’ with mammoths

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“Jurassic Park” was a work of fiction. Pleistocene Park is in the process of becoming fact.

A joint team of Japanese and Russian scientists arrived in the Siberian province of Yakutsk late last month to excavate a number of creatures that have been extinct for millennia — including mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses.

They plan to extract DNA from the frozen remains, cross-breed the retrieved nuclei with the creatures’ modern-day counterparts and return the resurrected dinosaurs to a vast “safari park” in northern Siberia.

“It probably sounds a little far-fetched, but it’s absolutely possible to do this,” said professor Akira Iritani, who is coordinating the project from Osaka’s Kinki University.

“It would be no problem having people visit the park, although infrastructure would need to be built, such as accommodations for the tourists, because Siberian winters are extremely severe,” he said.

And the 72-year-old Iritani knows what he is talking about. In January, he announced that the university’s School of Biology-Oriented Science and Technology, of which he is the dean, had transplanted a spinach gene into a pig to change the animal’s fat into less fatty linoleic acid. The result is healthier pork products.

Iritani and the Mammoth Creation Society, based in Miyazaki Prefecture, first hit the headlines in the mid-1990s when they announced plans to resurrect ancient animals, as he terms them, that roamed the Earth 20,000 years ago.

The group has organized several expeditions in recent years in search of remains to retrieve usable DNA. Ideally, they want to regenerate a mammoth.

“The best way to clone one of these animals is to find frozen sperm, but that is very difficult,” Iritani said. “Alternatively, a portion of muscle, skin or any piece of tissue can be a good source of viable DNA.

“The most important thing is to find a good carcass. We need to find specimens that were frozen immediately after death and have remained at a temperature of between minus 25 and minus 30 ever since,” he said.

And that is what his team is searching the Siberian tundra for. The 10-member group has traveled to the town of Chokurdakh, close to the East Siberian Sea and more than 500 km north of the Arctic Circle, to a site identified last year by local people as having numerous remains buried in the permafrost.

The search area was narrowed to several hundred square meters of tundra and the aim was to recover samples bearing viable DNA from the Siberian tiger, steppe lions, giant deer, ancient foxes and the ancestors of the Siberian horse, as well as mammoths and woolly rhinos, before returning to Japan.

The team’s return was delayed to mid-August by its discovery of what are believed to be the right foreleg and left hind leg of a woolly mammoth.

Iritani said a lot of work remains before the two samples can be positively identified, and it may take up to two months for Moscow authorities to grant permission for their transport to Japan.

Iritani has been working in collaboration with a university in Bangkok and as soon as usable mammoth DNA has been identified, an elephant will be artificially inseminated with the nucleus. Each generation of cross-bred mammoths will more closely resemble the genetic inheritance of its forefathers as females are impregnated with more DNA from the male mammoth.

The same process will be used with the other beasts, and in as little as 20 years, Iritani said, these long-extinct creatures will once again be roaming the steppe.

“It all depends on getting good-quality tissue, of course, but we will eventually be able to produce many, many animals,” he said. “At present, the success rate for cloned animals is not so high, but in a few years we will have the technology to repair recovered DNA that has been slightly damaged. We’ll store any damaged DNA that we find. We’re not going to give up this project.”

The ultimate aim is the Siberian sanctuary.

“The last time I was over there, the Russians showed us the place they will provide to build Pleistocene Park,” Iritani said. “We flew over it in a helicopter and the quality of the grass there seems to be perfect for the animals we’re working on.”

The park will cover an area about twice the size of Japan, he said, and at present the area has no human inhabitants.

As well as facilities for paying tourists, the reserve will need to provide shelter for the animals that are returned there, Iritani said, as he believes Siberia’s elements were far less severe 20,000 years ago than they are now.

Iritani’s search for a frozen mammoth began in 1996 and he is now a leading member of the Mammoth Creation Society, which in summer 1999 recovered a section of skin from what they believed at the time was a mammoth.

Their hopes were dashed 12 months later when it was determined that 90 percent of the skin’s DNA sequence matched that of the Indian rhinoceros, although Kazufumi Goto, a professor of reproductive physiology at Kagoshima University and a member of the group, said the discovery was still valuable.

Iritani said one of the goals of his quest is to draw attention to the fact that the permafrost is melting — uncovering these creatures in the process — as a result of global warming.