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Years after scandal, scientist leads campaign to resurrect mammoth

Hendrik Poinar, a scientist who believes he is close to cracking the woolly mammoth's genetic code, says that cloning extinct species is now possible. NBC's Jim Maceda reports.

Russian and South Korean scientists, including the cloning expert who was the focus of a stem-cell scandal six years ago, have signed a deal to try re-creating a woolly mammoth using cells recovered from 10,000-year-old frozen remains.

The papers for the joint research project were signed on Tuesday by Hwang Woo-Suk, chief technology officer for South Korea's Sooam Biotech Research Foundation; and Vasily Vasiliev, vice director of Russia's North-Eastern Federal University, during a ceremony at Hwang's office in Seoul.

Hwang is infamous for his role in human embryonic stem-cell research: In 2004 and 2005, he and his colleagues claimed to have extracted stem cells from what they characterized as the world's first cloned human embryos. But in late 2005, his work was found to have been based on fabricated data, and he was barred from continuing research with human cells.

Despite the disgrace, Hwang continued working with animal cloning techniques. Before the scandal broke, his team announced that they produced the world's first cloned dog, nicknamed Snuppy, and that claim has stood up to scrutiny. Last October, Hwang's team at Sooam unveiled eight cloned coyotes that had been produced by injecting nuclei from coyote skin cells into dog eggs. At the time, he said he was interested in cloning an endangered African dog species known as the lycaon ... and was interested in cloning a mammoth, too.

In December, Japanese news media said that scientists recovered a seemingly viable sample of bone marrow from a frozen mammoth thigh bone in Russia's Sakha Republic, and that a mammoth could be cloned back from extinction within five years. This week, Agence France-Presse reported that North-Eastern Federal University is working with the Japanese scientists and with the Koreans. The Beijing Genomics Institute is said to be taking part in the Korean-Russian project as well.

Reports from Seoul suggest that the mammoth-cloning effort could be launched this year if the Russians can ship the remains to Sooam's laboratory. "The first and hardest mission is to restore mammoth cells," a colleague of Hwang's at Sooam, Hwang In-Sung, told AFP.

Jung Yeon-Je / AFP - Getty Images

South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk, (far left) and Vasily Vasiliev, vice director of North-Eastern Federal University of Russia's Sakha Republic (far right), exchange agreements during a signing ceremony on joint research at Hwang's office in Seoul on Tuesday.

Sooam Biotech Research / AFP - Getty Images

This diagram released by the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation shows the process of replacing the nuclei of elephant egg cells with those taken from the mammoth's somatic cells to bring a mammoth back to life.

The plan calls for extracting nuclei from the thawed-out mammoth cells, putting them into elephant egg cells and stimulating the cells to start dividing. Embryos would be implanted into elephant wombs for gestation — and if the effort is successful, a mother elephant would give birth to a baby mammoth around 22 months later.

That's a big "if," as I wrote in December when I discussed the Japanese-Russian project. In addition to the usual problems surrounding interspecies cloning, it's highly doubtful that genetic material recovered from tissue that's been frozen for millennia would be sufficiently intact for extraction and implantation. What do you think of Hwang's chances? Feel free to register your vote at right, and voice your opinion in the comment section below.

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Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.