Another use for that frozen mammoth testicle trove

On the topic of increasing scientific illiteracy, we have this frozen mammoth sperm puff piece from the AP:

It isn't exactly Jurassic Park, but Japanese researchers are looking at the possibility of using sperm from frozen animals to inseminate living relatives.

In fact, they did use sperm from frozen animals -- mice that had been frozen for 15 years. In our world of science journalism, this is enough to write a story about fertilizing elephant eggs with frozen mammoth sperm.

This story has the perfect combination: it looks plausible enough on the surface if you don't know anything, but just a little bit of knowledge is enough to show it is completely ridiculous. Ludicrous statements and errors don't help. The hook seems to be this statement from the paper:

"If spermatozoa of extinct mammalian species can be retrieved from animal bodies that were kept frozen for millions of years in permafrost, live animals might be restored by injecting them into (eggs) from females of closely related species," the researchers said in a paper appearing in Tuesday's issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Note the qualifications, "if" and "might." Sure, if I eat enough bananas, monkeys might enroll in my classes.

But how does this dreck escape peer review? First of all, exactly what "animal bodies" have been "kept frozen for millions of years in permafrost"? Last I checked, mammoths and other frozen Pleistocene animals are only thousands, not millions of years old.

Now, there are areas with million-year-old permafrost in Siberia. In fact, the oldest ancient DNA recovery thus far was accomplished on fragments of specimens obtained by drilling, as explained in this 2003 New Scientist story:

The permafrost contained DNA from eight species of mammals including woolly mammoth, steppe bison and musk ox, dating back 30,000 years, as well as 28 families of trees, shrubs, mosses and herbs, some of which lived 300,000 to 400,000 years ago.
By drilling at widely spaced locations, and at different depths, the team could recreate ancient landscapes and watch them evolve. "From just two grams of soil, you can obtain a meaningful sample of the ecosystem," says Willerslev.

Now that's pretty cool. But nobody's drilling for testicles! For those, you will need a mammoth carcass, which are generally much younger. No matter what, we're not talking millions.

Oh, and there's this:

Elephants would be a potential candidate for insemination with frozen mammoth sperm, Ogura said. He also suggested experiments might be tried with extinct feline species and their modern relatives.

Well, cats are actually a good candidate, since their reproductive systems seem pretty tolerant of hybridization. And there are some permafrost-preserved sabertooth remains. But mummified cat carcasses would seem a bit less likely to preserve viable sperm than mammoths.

And why are we talking about viable sperm from frozen mummified bodies anyway? Haven't these people heard of DNA damage? Bacterial and fungal degradation before that immense body hits freezing temperature?

But no, nobody wants to hear about the obvious reasons this is impossible. They only want to figure out what species to get the eggs from:

"The trick, however, is to find an acceptable species that would act as the mother," added Chandler, who was not part of Ogura's research team. If an elephant egg were used "the offspring would not be a mammoth but a hybrid between an elephant and a mammoth. If one wanted a true mammoth one would have to find a source of viable mammoth (eggs) to fertilize and implant and this is a much dicier proposition."

Oh, yeah. Clearly the major technical barrier is finding the zoo that will host the immense publicity surge from a fuzzy elephant-mammoth hybrid baby. Not pesky little problems like thousands of lethal diagenetic mutations, or microbial damage, or cell membrane rupture due to slow ice crystal formation.

Now, the article does have a couple of cautionary quotes, like this one:

The downside, added [Robert] McGaughey, who was not part of the research team, is that an extinct animal probably would have to have been continuously maintained at a low temperature to avoid thawing/refreezing damage.

But it's just this kind of "he said/she said" reporting that promotes misunderstanding. It's very easy to find some expert to say, "Well, it sure sounds impossible, there's at least this other very big problem to overcome, but who knows, anyway?"

After all, the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, right?