As part of a collaborative study between Russia and South Korea, a team of scientists is gearing up to clone a prehistoric cave lion that has long since become extinct. The research comes after last year’s momentous discovery of a pair of well-preserved cubs, dating from the Pleistocene era, in the remote Siberian region of Yakutia. Using the complex technique of de-extinction, the researchers are planning to bring the ancient animals back to life.
Commonly known as the European or Eurasian cave lion, Panthera leo spelaea is a prehistoric big cat that last walked the earth nearly 10,000 years ago. During excavations last year, archaeologists from the Yakutian Academy of Sciences came across the frozen carcass of two ancient lions, excellently preserved in the permafrost. The cubs, which has since been named Uyan and Dina, died at least 12,000 years ago, when they were only a few weeks old.
According to the researchers, the fossilized bodies of the animals were found in the Abyisky district, along the bank of River Uyandina. Resembling a chihuahua in size, the prehistoric creatures are believed to be ideal candidates for de-extinction. To that end, a team of South Korean geneticists, led by Hwang Woo-suk, has arrived at Yakutsk to collect DNA samples from the lion cubs. Speaking about the research, Dr. Albert Protopopov of the Yakutian Academy of Sciences said:
Comparing with modern lion cubs, we think that these two were very small, maybe a week or two old. The eyes were not quite open, they have baby teeth and not all had appeared.
If everything goes according to plan, the scientists would be able to resurrect the extinct animal, using carefully-extracted tissue fragments. For that to happen, the team will have to extract sizable amounts of skin and muscle tissues from the ancient cubs; a step that has already caused dispute between the Korean and the Siberian researchers. As The Siberian Times reports, Woo-suk wanted a large section of the leg or skull for his research. The Russian group, however, wants to keep as much of the animals’ bodies as possible, preserving them for future research.
As the scientists point out, the process of de-extinction is based heavily on genetics. Cloning is one of the chief ways of bring extinct species back to life. It is a well-known fact that DNA degrades over time, often leaving behind gaps in the organism’s genomes. To fill these blanks in the lions’ DNA, Woo-suk and his team will have to borrow genetic material from existing species, stitching them together to form hybrid clones. Dr. Protopopov added:
Together with the Mammoth Museum, we took samples for cell research. We intend to keep it for the future. The methods of research are constantly being improved, about once a decade there is a mini-revolution in this area. So we will do everything possible to keep this carcass frozen for as long as possible.