Genetics: We’re Looking for a Few Good Unmentionables

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Outside magazine, December 1997

Genetics: We’re Looking for a Few Good Unmentionables

Hoping to bring back the woolly mammoth, Japanese researchers seek out some unusual treasures
By Paul Kvinta

At this very moment, like a squadron of petri-dish-wielding minutemen, Kazufumi Goto and his team of Japanese sperm hunters stand poised to return to Siberia. “Yes, we are ready,” he declares enthusiastically. “We will go anytime if someone
finds a good sample.”

Should Goto actually locate his elusive prey — frozen woolly mammoth sperm — the Kagoshima University researcher wants to try something never before attempted: the resurrection of a long-extinct species. His scheme calls for artificially inseminating an elephant with the sperm, thus producing a new sort of pachyderm with, we can only imagine, hippie-length hair and
one hell of a memory. He would then breed those creatures with one another for several generations, eventually creating something “genetically close” to a prehistoric woolly mammoth.

On its second expedition to western Siberia last September, Goto’s team found mammoth fossils beneath the permafrost but, alas, no sperm. And most experts maintain that even if Goto should find intact, sufficiently chilled mammoth testes with, well, the core of confidence inside, little would likely come of it. “This guy’s operating in the realm of science fiction,” insists
Michael Schmidt, a research veterinarian at the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon. Schmidt points out that — as a result of anatomical realities too salacious to be discussed in a family publication — scientists have yet to successfully inseminate an elephant with sperm from a living animal, much less that of a species that’s been extinct for 10,000 years. “Tell
Mr. Goto to call me in about a century,” Schmidt says, apparently none too impressed with the scientific acumen of his intrepid colleague, “and maybe then we can discuss the feasibility of woolly mammoths roaming the plains.”

Illustration by James Yang

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