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article imageOp-Ed: 'Cloning the woolly mammoth' — A documentary

By Stephen Morgan     Apr 15, 2015 in Science
A recent documentary by Motherboard looks into the murky world of mammoth cloning. Focusing on the efforts of a company in South Korea, it poses the question of whether this is truly the advancement of science or just big business?
The documentary begins by focussing on the work of the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation, which operates one of the most advanced cloning laboratories in the world and is spearheading international efforts to revive the woolly mammoth.
But in the course of their investigation, the producers also uncover the opaque, semi-legal world of Siberian “mammoth hunting”, controlled by dubious Russian groups, who are raking in huge profits from the sale of mammoth tusks on the international ivory markets, and simultaneously supplying left over mammoth carcasses to South Korean scientists
Does this boil down to collaboration between two unethical groups for the purpose of profit, or is it something the Koreans can't avoid? Are the Koreans helping to prop up a shady trade on the edges of legality, just to get to the finish line before their competitors? These are just some of the questions which spring to mind in the course of the documentary.
The man heading the research in South Korea is the disgraced academic, Dr Hwang Woo-Suk, who was indicted for fraud and embezzlement in 2006. According to Reuters at the time, Woo-Suk admitted in court that he had spent part of $1 million in corporate donations for "peripheral activities related to research".
"Some of the money,” he said, “was spent in contacting the Russia mafia as we tried to clone mammoths."
That same year, Woo-Suk was dismissed as a professor of theriogenology and biotechnology at Seoul National University and was discredited in scientific circles after being exposed for fraudulently fabricating a series of experiments published in the journal Science, in which he claimed he had succeeded in creating human embryonic stem cells by cloning.
Today, however, Woo-Suk has been semi-rehabilitated and former accusations seem to have been brushed under the carpet, thus allowing him to remain actively involved in similar research, in the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation.
Cloning for cash
As the documentary shows, Sooam Biotech has turned cloning into a profitable business. Rich clients around the world are already having their favorite pets cloned for a mere $100,000. Dogs appear to be in big demand. In one documented case, a Boston terrier from a client in the US was successfully cloned using a dog of another breed as a surrogate. Indeed, Sooam Biotech used the successful cloning of a coyote from another dog as proof of its expertise.
However, the documentary does show a number of areas in which the firm is involved, that might also be of some benefit to humanity. Some of the dogs which Sooam scientists have cloned have been genetically altered and given markers to help in Alzheimer's research.
Cattle have been cloned which are more resistant to foot and mouth disease – a major problem for the food industry in South Korea and elsewhere.
On the other hand, when questioned about cow cloning, one of the heads of its units instead liked to emphasize that the process would lead to bigger cows and “superb” meat. Call me cynical, but, I imagine, that would also mean bigger sales and “superb” profits.
Interviews
But the bigger question is not only – could they reanimate a woolly mammoth – but what are their motivations for doing so?
During the tour of the Sooam facilities, the presenter sits down with a couple of the key researchers involved in the project and poses some questions on this issue.
Unfortunately, the interviewees were incapable of providing any convincing arguments for going ahead with the rebirth of the mammoth. What is also worrying, is that those involved don't seem to have any clear idea of the ethical and moral issues involved – or how far they should go with cloning experiments in general.
We are told that the moral and ethical issues are for the authorities to decide – a convenient way perhaps, for them to avoid taking any responsibility for self-monitoring their activities and imposing their own limits.
cloning process
cloning process
Motherboard video clip
The presenter asks Dr Jeong Woo and another researcher, David Kim to tell him why they should clone the mammoth and whether they are playing God in trying to do so. The replies are literally nothing more than one sentence nonsense.
“Because its available.”
“Someone on this earth will have to do.”
“We are obliged to bring it back as humans.”
And the pièce de résistance;
“Don't you think it will be fun to see what comes out?”
You can't help wondering how such people can be allowed to tinker with such an important moral and ethical issue, as cloning a woolly mammoth? Not only don't their answers provide any sound scientific reason for doing it, they obviously show that they have no real grasp of what is at stake here.
Unfortunately, the presenter lets them get away with this. He fails to come back on their answers and follow through with supplementary questions which would pin them to the spot. Instead, the interview takes on the air of a friendly chat, rather than a piece of investigative journalism.
The only practical argument one of them can give, is that cloning a mammoth could help in saving endangered species. But is this really a solution? Aren't more strict controls and penalties needed instead? Why wouldn't the new cloned animals also be hunted down for profit and what would stop the continued destruction of their habitat?
When asked if they would keep a woolly mammoth in a zoo, one of them replies that they would go about finding an environment for it to survive and live, such as in Siberia.
Quite right, but, I myself can't see any company giving up on the chance of the massive profits which could be made from putting the first woolly mammoth on display. Wouldn't people travel from all over the world just to see it and pay a pretty penny to do so?
Finally, when one of them was asked if they would clone a Neanderthal or a human being, the answer was indeed no. Instead, he said it would be better to clone organs for health reasons. Again quite correct, but he didn't rule it out completely, saying that it “could be done theoretically.” Maybe one day we'll be digging up graves of the dead to clone our ancestors!
Afterwards, I was left wondering why the head of the program, Dr Hwang Woo-Suk, hadn't been interviewed? Had he declined? Would he prefer not to face awkward questions that might dig up his past? We don't know. His only appearance was to explain some the techniques involved.
From that point of view, the documentary does give a simple and understandable explanation of how the cloning process takes place.
What about doing it with the woolly mammoth? Well, the staff confidently boasted that they already have all the technology, and all they are waiting for, is to find one living cell in the tissues samples they are working on.
But whether a surrogate Asian elephant, which is the mammoths closest genetic relative, would accept the impregnated cells of a 40,000 year old mammoth, is another question.
Not all scientists around the world believe that successfully cloning a mammoth will be as quick or easy as the South Korean scientists predict.
The Russian Connection.
After the visit to South Korea, the documentary turns to Russia, in effort to follow the trail of the frozen mammoths from the Siberian permafrost to the operating tables in the Sooam Biotech laboratory in Seoul.
First they visit Yakutsk in Siberia, which is the closest city to where the frozen mammoths are dug up and there they went onto Moscow, from where shifty entrepreneurs and shady gangs organize the exhumation and trading of mammoth carcasses.
The “grey” market, as they call it in the documentary, depends on crews of hunters digging around vast areas of the northern tundra in search of frozen mammoths. The tusks are then sent to Moscow for sale to rich bidders. A mammoth tusk can fetch $50,000.
Others are sold to sweatshops to be carved into trinkets, while the carcasses are then sent onto Seoul for the Korean scientists to experiment on.
An oligarch at the head of this trade, who is interviewed on camera, describes this euphemistically as a “business without some rules.”
While Sooam Biotech can't be implicated directly in these sort of activities, it doesn't seem to be vocal about shutting it down or implementing stricter controls over the business. But, neither for that matter does Putin, who has shown an interest in it. Perhaps we can just put the Russian connection down to an unfortunate marriage of convenience.
Sooam Biotech is after all a private company and not a government research facility. Its primary aim is to make profits. But the question is, can we entrust private industry with such matters as cloning woolly mammoths or would it better pursued by government projects, or at least put under the strict scrutiny of government agencies?
Without adequate surveillance, who knows what sort of research and experimentation could be going on outside the public eye in any of these companies? The replies in the interview and the history of the research leader in Seoul don't exactly imbue one with confidence in this respect.
The Sooam scientists say that if they are successful with the woolly mammoth, then many other extinct animals could be brought back to life. You never know. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, you might be able to buy a sabre-toothed tiger as a pet – at least if you have a small fortune to spare.
Despite some inadequacies, the 20 minute documentary is well-produced and definitely worth watching. You can find the full video at the following link – Motherboard Cloning the Woolly Mammoth
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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