SCIENCE
11/24/2014 02:45 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2014

Effort To Clone Woolly Mammoth Takes Big Step Forward

Scientists are one step closer to cloning a woolly mammoth, thanks to the results of a new autopsy conducted on a remarkably preserved specimen of the species discovered last year.

The 40,000-year-old mammoth, nicknamed "Buttercup," was found in permafrost on the remote Siberian island of Maly Lyakhovsky. When scientists cut into the carcass, its fresh-looking flesh oozed dark blood, raising hopes that DNA could be extracted.

(Scroll down for gallery of images below.)

Scientists believe that the key to cloning the prehistoric beast is finding a complete copy of its DNA. That wasn't found in this case, but the scientists did recover long fragments.

Plans call for researchers from South Korea's Sooam Biotech Research Foundation to analyze tissue samples from the carcass over the next two years, with the hopes of finding an intact genome.

"There is the possibility of finding something that's amazing," Insung Hwang, a Sooam scientist who was involved in the autopsy, told NBC. "We are very hopeful that this mammoth can give us an accurate genomic map that we can use as a template in the future to possibly bring back the mammoth."

Even if researchers turn up empty-handed, some say it may be possible to combine snippets of Buttercup's DNA with elephant DNA to make a mammoth-elephant hybrid that could sport the mammoth's big tusks and its woolly coat, Live Science reported.

No matter what, scientists are all but bonkers over Buttercup.

"As a paleontologist, you normally have to imagine the extinct animals you work on," Dr. Tori Herridge, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum in London, who was involved in the autopsy, said in a written statement. "So actually coming face-to-face with a mammoth in the flesh, and being up to my elbows in slippery, wet, and frankly rather smelly mammoth liver, counts as one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It's up there with my wedding day."

The autopsy revealed that Buttercup likely lived through eight calving seasons, and was around 50 years old when she died. The researchers determined that she was probably trapped in a peat bog and then killed by predators.

The full results of the autopsy will be revealed in the Smithsonian Channel's "How to Clone a Woolly Mammoth," which airs on Sunday Nov. 29 at 8 p.m. EST.

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40,000-Year-Old Woolly Mammoth
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