Woolly mammoth
Mammoth 'cloning' laboratory opens in RussiaFlying Puffin/Creative Commons

Russia's new woolly mammoth "cloning" laboratory will not result in the extinct species being resurrected any time soon – but it may well lead to new insights into the prehistoric creature. The laboratory at the Mammoth Museum of the Institute of Applied Ecology opened in March and made headlines earlier this week.

Semen Grigoryev, director of the museum, said researchers there will "seek out live cells with a view to cloning" and that "the priority is to look into bringing back the mammoth". The news caused a buzz on social media, but the reality of bringing the woolly mammoth back from the dead is a long way off.

The laboratory is a collaborative effort between Russian and South Korean scientists. The Korean researchers are actively looking to clone the mammoth – they are looking to find an intact genome. However, every genome that has been recovered have already broken down into millions of small pieces making it impossible to insert into a living cell.

More realistically, scientists will be studying the tissues of ancient animals and their genome, looking at their DNA to find out more about them. Love Dalén, of the Swedish Museum of Natural History, recently published a study in the Cell Press journal Current Biology that compared the genomes of two woolly mammoths. His findings provided an insight into why they went extinct 4,000 years ago.

Speaking to IBTimes UK about the new laboratory, he said it appears to be a hybrid between cloning and DNA analysis: "In the Korean interests this lab is somewhere that they could possibly look at the samples and identify what they hope to find as cells. I think from the Russian perspective they are being able to look at genetic analysis. It is a hybrid between a cloning and a DNA lab, although in reality it's not going to be a cloning lab per se. It's more that they will be identifying suitable samples and so on and analysing DNA.

woolly mammoth
A woolly mammoth found frozen in Siberia, Russia is pictured upon its arrival at an exhibition hall in Yokohama, south of TokyoReuters

"There are different opinions as to whether this is worthwhile – the cloning bit – and I am on a differing opinion than the South Koreans, in that in my expert opinion, there is hardly any chance whatsoever that they'll find anything that is clone-able. But at the same time I think it's great that the Russians are building a DNA facility."

The facility has over 2,000 frozen samples of ancient animals, most of which have been found in permafrost zones that helped preserve the specimens. This includes the mammoth discovered in 2013 that still contained 'blood'.

Dalén said the lab will most likely be used to identify samples that might be suitable for cloning, rather than actually carrying out cloning: "Even with modern samples, cloning is a complicated business. Very few labs in the world today can even do cloning on modern living animals."

While he said this is the "end goal" of the South Korean team, the Russian scientists appear to be more interested in understanding the history and evolution of all the species they are studying. Over the coming years, he hopes to see some interesting research on the genetic diversity of the species.

He also said he expects field teams to continue to find more mammoth specimens: "They are very experienced in finding and collecting samples, which is clear from the number they have collected already. They are building up an amazing database of samples for DNA analysis."

Hypothetically, if scientists did mange to find a way to clone the woolly mammoth, there would be no legal barriers to stop them from doing so. Dalén explained: "There are no legal obligations or treaties about this in the scientific community. From the scientific point of view, nothing can stop them. I don't know if there are international agreements outside science. There's nothing to stop them from doing it ... but it's not going to work anyway."