Are scientists cloning the king of jungles past?

7 Mar 2016

Scientists in Russia and South Korea want to clone an extinct cave lion from 12,000 years ago, using brand new DNA recreation sequencing methods.

Following the discovery of the fossilised remains of two well-preserved lion cubs in Russia last year, hopes seem to be growing that a successful clone of the now-extinct species is possible.

Thanks to the cubs being found in permafrost, which held them together remarkably well (so well, in fact, that their whiskers remain), scientists are hopeful that they can work with some living tissue that could still exist on the remains.

If this type of thing rings a bell, it’s probably because you remember similar plans to clone a woolly mammoth, which made news last summer. Some of the team working with the cubs are also working on the woolly mammoth, which was similarly found in the Russian tundra.

The project is a joint venture by Russian and South Korean scientists at the Joint Foundation of Molecular Paleontology at North East Russia University in the city of Yakutsk.

One steps forward, three glances back

Scientists have been making significant advances in DNA sequencing in recent months, with the realisation that even moderately preserved remains could contain the relevant tissue needed for procedures.

Last October, researchers, for the first time, successfully sequenced the first full genome from a 4,500-year-old African skeleton. What was incredible about this is remains in Africa are rarely thought to be usable, due to the arid environment stripping them of any usable tissue.

However, new scientific discoveries mean that researchers can now find DNA preserved inside the remains of the ear, which was also the technique used in January by Irish geneticists to learn more about dozens of decapitated gladiator warriors found in the UK.

Albert Protopopov of the Yakutian Academy of Sciences said the cub fossils’ entire body parts were found intact, including soft tissue, ears, fur and whiskers. Protopopov said the discovery of the cubs, which were “very small, maybe a week or two old”, was truly a sensational one.

Of course, trying to clone extinct species, and actually cloning extinct species, are two wildly different things, so, much like the woolly mammoth plans, don’t expect daily updates on something that will presumably take many years to fully investigate.

Lion image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic