Thursday, April 09, 2015

Cloning Mammoths

A geneticist at Harvard has successfully inserted woolly mammoth DNA into elephant cells:

Mammoth DNA

The experiment didn't recreate the entire mammoth genome but singled out particular "mammoth-like characteristics," such as ear size and the woolly coat. Although there are still several steps to go before a live mammoth-like animal could be produced, the transformed elephant cells are functioning properly, so it could happen. This is only one of three teams worldwide working on such a project.

Naturally, some people have ethical qualms about the whole idea. One zoologist is quoted as objecting that it doesn't make sense to lavish money and time on reviving an extinct species while present-day elephants are endangered. That argument doesn't seem completely logical to me. Why should the two projects be mutually exclusive? Can't we have both genetically engineered mammoths and campaigns to save elephants? Also, as the article points out, work with extinct pachyderms could raise the profile of modern elephants, thus contributing to their preservation.

Doesn't this kind of research have legitimate value beyond "let's do it because we can"? If we could recreate a living woolly mammoth, couldn't we study that species in far more depth than we can from prehistoric, dead specimens? And isn't knowledge in itself a Good Thing? (Even if it can be misused. We have plenty of cautionary SF tales to warn us about What Not to Do; nobody is likely to set up a Jurassic Park devoid of safeguards in real life.)

Speaking of the negative side of reviving prehistoric species, Peter Watt's SF novel BLINDSIGHT has an accompanying website designed as a multimedia publicity release from a fictional research corporation in the novel. That company has recreated an extinct vampire race through genetic engineering (in the story itself, a vampire commands a spaceship tasked with a first-contact mission). Check out this very detailed and graphic account of the vampire project. It takes a while to watch, but it's fascinating. How could you beat the slogan "Taming Yesterday's Nightmares for a Better Tomorrow"? The deadpan humor—delivered absolutely "straight" by the earnest voice-over commentator—is especially effective.

Blindsight Vampires

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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