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Move over mammoth: New effort will focus on cloning cave lions

During the last ice age, the Earth was home to significantly more megafauna — animals with adult body weights over 100 pounds — than it is today. The Woolly Mammoth is one of the best-known examples of these creatures, but it’s far from the only one. Cave bears were once extant across Europe, while America was host to American lions, giant sloths, and the utterly insane (but non-fabricated) sabertooth salmon.

For years, scientists have discussed the possibility of cloning some of these species, including mammoths or mastodons. Last year, a new discovery opened up the possibility that some other species might be brought back to life through cloning: cave lions.

Lion Cubs

Image credit: The Siberian Times

In November 2015, researchers in Yakutsk displayed a pair of cave lion cubs found entirely intact and frozen on the bank of the Uyandina River. The pair, dubbed Uyan and Dina, are the most complete set of remains ever found for this species, which is known mainly through fossils rather than the recovery of soft tissue. Cave lions are thought to have been 8-10% larger at full growth than modern lions, and likely preyed on the other large megafauna that existed across Asia, Europe, and North America at the time.

We have evidence from cave paintings that cave lions seem to have hunted cooperatively, as modern lionesses have been observed to do, and the last surviving cave lions appear to have focused on killing reindeer in at least some areas. Complete cave lion skeletons have also been found in the dens of some cave bears, suggesting that the former may have attempted to grab a snack while the latter was hibernating, only to die in the attempt.


Prehistoric cave lion paintings. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Now, South Korean cloning expert and infamous liar Hwang Woo-suk has traveled to Siberia to take genetic samples from the cubs’ remains, in the hopes of extracting viable DNA from the preserved tissue. If you’re wondering why I introduced Hwang in that rather odd fashion, it’s because he’s been on both sides of that particular coin. Hwang is a genuine expert in cloning and genetic engineering and his company, Sooam Biotech, claims to have cloned 700 dogs from 2005-2015. He’s also had success cloning coyotes, though work on a Woolly Mammoth has not yet located viable genetic material.

On the other hand, Hwang is also known to have falsified research results. He lied about creating 11 distinct embryonic stem cell lines in 2005 (official investigations found he had created nothing). He lied about how many female eggs had been used to attempt the botched creation (claimed: 185, actual: 2,061) and he lied when he stated he didn’t know his own female staff had contributed eggs to the project (in reality, Hwang distributed donor consent forms and on at least one occasion, escorted an employee to the hospital for the donation procedure personally). His 2004 results were also discredited as a result of this work.

The same panel that invalidated all of his work on humans and human cloning, however, confirmed that he had genuinely cloned a dog, named Snuppy. It’s not hard to see why Hwang continues to focus on cloning extinct species like mammoths or cave lions — success in these areas would demonstrate, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that he had genuine talent and ability. A dog, even if legitimately cloned, isn’t guaranteed to look exactly like the parent, and naysayers could always argue that he hadn’t actually achieved his goal. It’s much harder to look at a once-extinct mammoth or mastodon and argue that it’s actually an elephant.

Reaching back into the past

One of the problems with cloning extinct animals is that DNA degrades at a fairly predictable rate. Back in 2012, scientists examined the leg bones of 158 Moa birds, all of which were between 600 and 8,000 years old, preserved in similar conditions, and from three sites within 5km of each other. The degree of similarity between the samples allowed researchers to determine that the half-life of DNA is roughly 521 years — meaning that half the nucleotide bonds within a sample break by 521 years. Move another 521 years in the past, and another half of the samples break. The amount of viable DNA in a sample 10,000 years old, in other words, is very, very, small. This is likely why Hwang is quoted as being disappointed with the size of the samples the lab was able to provide him from the cubs.

Sampling the ancient cubs

The Siberian Times claims there was a dispute between the research teams, writing:

“The dispute arose from the fact that the researchers, as always, want to be completely sure and take more tissue, and I can understand them. But the lion is not fully preserved and there are not so many tissues. We have planned other studies, so it is important to preserve the original morphology of the remains. Such disputes are normal in all studies, and in the end we came to a compromise.”

When the DNA chain is as badly degraded as these samples would be, large physical samples are critical to any effort to read viable DNA at all.

Any effort to resurrect cave lions as a species is still years in the future, and would likely rely on breeding embryos with part of the cave lion genome in already-extant species like the African lion. That, at least, has been the proposed path for the mammoth, though we have yet to recover enough DNA from a frozen mammoth to make the attempt.

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