A dream to revive the woolly mammoth

by Setsuko Kamiya

Staff writer

MIYAZAKI — With the cloning of sheep and cows in the news these days, Kazutoshi Kobayashi’s “Jurassic Park” dream may not be so far-fetched.

His dream: Resurrecting the woolly mammoth.

Born in Nobeoka, Miyazaki Prefecture, 58-year-old Kobayashi in 1981 founded Field Co., which engages in commercial advertising and product design.

His visit to Khabarovsk in eastern Siberia in 1992, prompted by his interest in Russian technologies, was a turning point in his business.

Kobayashi went to Khabarovsk in search of Russian scientists willing to license their inventions and bumped into a technology that would decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen at a temperature of 3,000 degrees.

“I bought the license and brought it back to Japan, and it was sold here in no time,” Kobayashi said. “I thought the technologies they had in Russia were fascinating.”

Kobayashi then added to his business the buying and managing of licenses for Russian scientific technologies. This transition eventually led to his meeting in 1996 with Kazufumi Goto, a reproductive physiologist and former professor at Kagoshima University.

Goto, a specialist in breeding beef cattle, was the first person in the world to succeed in producing normal calves by injecting single, dead sperm cells directly into mature eggs in 1990.

Kobayashi recalled a visit by Goto one day in which he claimed he wanted to resurrect the woolly mammoth, a creature that has been extinct for nearly 10,000 years.

“I’ve always seen myself as an adult who never grew out of my childhood curiosity, but Goto is even more like that,” Kobayashi said with a smile. “But I knew he wasn’t joking about what he was saying, and I decided we would pursue his dream together.”

Full of curiosity and wanting to do something outside of his business, Kobayashi took an interest in Goto’s dream and adopted it as his own.

Using his Russian business connections, Kobayashi put Goto in touch with the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, the capital of the Siberian republic of Sakha.

Akira Iritani, a professor at Kinki University’s department of genetic engineering, then joined the project.

In the late 1980s, Iritani, a former professor at Kyoto University became one of the first in the world to succeed in fertilizing rabbit eggs, employing a technique now used in humans.

In 1997, Kobayashi established the Creation of Mammoth Association in his office and has been coordinating the project as well as taking part in the excavation of a frozen mammoth. The project has been supported by the Russian Embassy in Japan as well as the Sakha government.

According to Kobayashi, the group has two possible strategies for resurrecting the mammoth. One idea is to thaw mammoth sperm and inject it into the egg of an elephant, a close relative of the mammoth, and breed a hybrid.

By repeating the procedure, with the hybrid replacing the elephant, it is hoped each generation of hybrids would look more and more like a mammoth.

But if the group finds frozen cells in superb condition, they may try to clone a pure mammoth, he said.

This won’t happen, however, unless they can find a mammoth carcass in good condition.

In August 1997, Kobayashi headed a group of 33 Japanese, Russian and British scientists on their first expedition in search of such a carcass.

At the time, they were only able to find mammoth bones and remains of other extinct beasts, but their journey attracted much media attention both in Japan and overseas.

On their second expedition last August, a 26-member party consisting of both Japanese and Russians found in permafrost part of the skin from the rump of a woolly mammoth that apparently died more than 30,000 years ago.

“All those specialists cried with joy when they confirmed it was a mammoth, and I was moved,” Kobayashi said.

The association has been negotiating with the Russian government for permission to bring part of their find to Japan, he said, adding that the frozen specimen may come to Japan around the end of the month.

The possibility of extracting DNA from the skin is very slim, but studying the find could improve the understanding of mammoths and the reason they became extinct, Kobayashi said. “But if the scientists find DNA, this will be a spectacular discovery.”

Kobayashi is aware that some may ethically oppose attempts to resurrect an extinct animal. “If we really gain the chance to resurrect a mammoth, we will offer the information to the world and discuss the issue together,” he said.

Goto and Iritani have both specialist knowledge as well as their goal, but Kobayashi has three different reasons to pursue the mammoth project.

“The fact that we were able to find the frozen mammoth in the permafrost is because it is melting,” Kobayashi said. “We’ve been told of the greenhouse effect for several years now, but I can really feel it through this project. And I hope that through the pursuit of a mammoth I can tell people what is happening to the permafrost.”

He also said people should be more aware that some animals, including mammoths, became extinct because of hunting by humans.

Kobayashi said he also hopes his adventure encourages young people to pursue their own dreams.

“Fantasy won’t become reality, but I think dreams with scientific possibilities may come true if you really put your mind to it and make efforts to achieve them,” he said.

Other countries are also looking for mammoths, and Kobayashi said his group may work with other parties in the United States and France next year in their quest for a dream come true.