Ever since the dawn of cloning technology, people have dreamed about bringing an extinct species back to life, and now a South Korean company is claiming it could bring back the woolly mammoth in a few decades’ time, according to Live Science reporter Tia Ghose.
Insung Hwang, a geneticist at the South Korean company Sooam, said the discovery of a mostly-intact mammoth in 2013 has opened the door to bringing the species back.
“We’re trying hard to make this possible within our generation,” he said recently, reports Tristan Kirk of The Telegraph.
However, just because science has the capability to bring back a woolly mammoth doesn’t mean we should – according to some scientists concerned about the ethics of such a Frankenstein-esque procedure.
Tori Herridge, a paleobiologist and mammoth specialist at the Natural History Museum in London, told Kirk that a female elephant would have to act as a surrogate mother and the birthing process isn’t without its dangers for the elephant. Also, once the mammoth is born – it could potentially live out a lonely captive existence in a world it may not be evolved to deal with.
“The most fundamental step and ethical concern with this kind of procedure is that you need to have an Asian elephant surrogate mum at some point,” Herridge told the telegraph reporter. “Cloning a mammoth will require you to experiment on probably many, many Asian elephants.”
“I don’t think they are worth it – the reasons just aren’t there,” she added.
The 2013 mammoth was found in a remote part of Siberia, Ghose reports. Upon discovery and inspection, the animal carcass began to ooze a deep red liquid thought to be mammoth blood. The carcass was apparently so well-preserved – one scientist actually took a bite out of its meat.
The specimen, dubbed Buttercup, was eventually transferred to a Russian research center, where it was inspected and eventually refrozen to prevent decomposition. Tests would later reveal that blood cells in the red liquid were broken, but still held hemoglobin – an iron-rich chemical that stores oxygen. Researchers haven’t revealed the presence of a complete mammoth genome, meaning cloning the animal is still a theory for now.
Scientists suspect that mammoths were social creatures and therefore cloning one or two might be seen as placing these animals into an unnatural and cruel existence.
“There is no good reason to clone mammoths and many reasons not to, including forcing elephants to carry young,” Jack Ashby, the manager of Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London, recently posted on Twitter.
Scientists from the South Korean company have said that their method would take a long time to work out based on the current state of affairs – leaving plenty of time for the debate over cloning extinct species to rage on.
Sir Ian Wilmut, the Edinburgh-based professor who cloned the world’s first animal, said bringing back the woolly mammoth would be worth the effort.
“I think it should be done as long as we can provide great care for the animal,” he said last year. “If there are reasonable prospects of them being healthy, we should do it. We can learn a lot about them.”
The smallest, portable version of rHealth (Image: DNA Medical Institute)
US scientists have created a home device that replicates hundreds of complex and expensive lab tests by analyzing just one drop of blood. The constant monitoring offered by the device – which needs little training to use – could save millions of lives.
“There are two billion people on Earth who have no access to ready medical care. We set out to fix that – by developing a device that allows you to diagnose yourself no matter where you are,” said Eugene Chan, who leads the team at DNA Medical Institute, which has received grants from NASA and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The rHEALTH (Reusable Handheld Electrolyte and Lab Technology for Humans) device operates using nano sensors that can measure everything from the presence of HIV or other viruses in the bloodstream, to the level of vitamins or calcium or cholesterol, with the results arriving within minutes.
It also comes with a small patch that monitors heart rate, body temperature, and other indicators, with the information all being pooled in a central unit, which comes in three sizes – one resembling a flask, to be used on the move, a walkie-talkie-sized unit for home testers, and a home-blender-like contraption for labs.
Image: DNA Medical Institute
“It’s a symphony of innovations, but we’ve pushed all of them individually to create the device,” Chan told Wired.
“The rHEALTH technology is highly sensitive, quantitative, and capable of meeting the FDA’s bar for sophistication, while still being geared for consumers.”
Not only are the tests cumbersome and expensive to do separately, but having so much data in the same place means that rHEALTH is a diagnostic device.
After submitting the data – at any time, within the comfort of a person's own house – the screen simply flashes up with suggestions for what is potentially wrong with the patient, which means they immediately know whether they need to call a doctor.
While the makers say their product will help most in developing countries – where laboratories are few and inaccessible – they could also become accepted, and even standard, in the West.
For example, according to Cancer Research, 50,000 people in the UK die needlessly from cancer each year, due to late diagnosis. An early abnormal blood test could prompt a visit to a doctor – not to mention the benefits of blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol tests for diagnosing the cardiovascular diseases that remain the biggest killers.
If the devices become ubiquitous, Chan believes they could create a huge pool of health data, allowing health providers to allocate resources more efficiently, and giving researchers a giant, real-time, detailed health database for study.
Chan’s team has just been awarded the top $525,000 prize for the annual Nokia Sensing X challenge, which is pushing inventors to harvest the power of portable devices – including phones, bracelets, and cameras – to do more than the basic heart rate and distance monitoring that they are capable of now.
The home version of rHEALTH (Image: DNA Medical Institute)
The prizes are building up to a $10 million Tricorder Prize in 2016, which will be awarded to the makers of a single device – modeled after the Star Trek gadget – that will be able to simultaneously diagnose 15 key conditions. DNA Medical Institute believes that it is almost there with rHEALTH, which is constantly adding new diagnostic capabilities.
But the Holy Grail remains the commercialization of the project.
Chan says his team can already ship any researchers their own device within weeks, but before being on the shelves, it must receive FDA approval, after a battery of expensive lab trials – though as part of its original proposed role as the NASA onboard diagnostic device, rHEALTH has already been tested in reduced gravity. Chan is confident the tester will gain approval, and says his team is currently looking for manufacturers to scale-up production.
photo credit: Lexicon via wikimedia commons. The most distant of these outer solar system objects share a trait that hints at an unknown planet.
The possibility of a planet lurking in the outer reaches of the solar system has gained new ground, based on the orbits of recently discovered objects. There is a new twist to the latest evidence, however, with suggestions of not one but two large planets at mind-bending distances from the Sun.
The quest for a "Planet X" beyond Neptune has been going on for more than a century. Recently, two dwarf planets Senda and 2102 VP113 have been identified with orbits extending to distances hundreds of times further from the Sun than our own.
Instead it is thought that these objects formed closer to the sun. The gravitational influence of a large planet is one explanation of how their orbits changed. The theory has its own problems – if we can’t explain how objects like these came to be orbiting at such distances, then it’s equally unclear how a theoretical planet came to be there.
Yet all of these distant objects reach their closest point to the sun just when they are near the plane the planets circle in. The scientists considered this unlikely to be a coincidence, and speculate it might be a sign of a planet influencing all of their orbits.
E. Otwell. The two most distant minor planets have very different orbits, but converge when closest to the sun.
In Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters brothers Carlos and Raul de la Fuente Marcos of Complutense University of Madrid have taken this a step further. “The analysis of several possible scenarios strongly suggest that at least two trans-Plutonian planets must exist,” they conclude.
Even more recently, Lorenzo Iorio of the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research has argued in the same journal that if planet X exists, it must be much further out than Trujillo and Sheppard proposed. How far it would need to be depends on its mass, but an unknown object twice as heavy as the Earth could not be less than 500 AU from the Sun, Iorio maintains.
Other astronomers are more cautious. David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles told Science News, "The outer solar system can be full of all sorts of unseen and interesting things,” Jewitt says, “but the argument ... for a massive perturber is a bit puzzling.” Jewitt notes that if the Kuiper Belt Objects in the Trujillo/Sheppard study have a planet keeping them in line, it may well be Neptune. Sedna and 2012 VP113 are too far out for this to be true for them as well, but it is far easier to explain two orbits as coincidences than twelve.
While the question may only be finally settled by the discovery of a large planet lurking in space, a number of teams have redoubled their efforts to find modest sized objects whose orbits might help us lend credence to, or reject, the theories proposed so far.