“Nobody wants the dinosaurs back, because we’ve all seen ‘Jurassic Park,’ ” says documentarian Christian Frei. “But everybody wants the woolly mammoth back, because of ‘Ice Age’! They have this reputation of being cute. Which is absurd.”
When the Zürich-based director (“War Photographer”) began researching his documentary “Genesis 2.0,” about the quest to resurrect the giant, hairy beast via cloning technology, he realized his subject links the cutting-edge future and the very distant past. “I was immediately hooked, of course.”
“Genesis” consists of two entwined, haunting narratives: In one, Frei follows the progress of what’s known as synthetic biology and visits a South Korean cloning lab to learn about the latest leaps forward in spawning life. In the other, his Russian co-director Maxim Arbugaev shoots on the windswept, remote New Siberian islands in northern Russia, where “tusk hunters” make a dangerous pilgrimage every year in the hopes of finding intact mammoth tusks — or, in one stunning case, the entire carcass of a young woolly mammoth, which surprises everyone present by trickling blood when accidentally perforated.
The whole-mammoth find connects two Russian brothers, Semyon and Peter Grigoriev: the former is a paleontologist and head of the Mammoth Museum in Yakutsk, Russia, on a quest to find a living woolly mammoth cell. His brother is a tusk hunter who makes the perilous annual journey to the remote wilderness — where polar bears are not uncommon — to dig into the frozen earth in search of tusks, which fetch a high price with Chinese ivory traders.
But the tusk trade pales in comparison to the financial incentive in synthetic biology. In this doc, we visit a science fair full of aspiring synthetic-biologists; their hero and mentor, Harvard researcher George Church; and, most bizarrely, the staff of a dog-cloning lab in South Korea, run by stem-cell researcher Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk, who gained global notoriety in 2005 after faking results. Despite that, his lab will clone your canine companion for $100,000 — and you’ll get an extra clone thrown in for free. According to Frei, Dr. Hwang and his team have already produced 900 healthy clones for grieving (and wealthy) owners. What’s more, he says, “the [American] DEA just ordered 17 dogs, because one of their drug-sniffing dogs was so gifted at finding cocaine. It’s a crazy world.” Barbra Streisand is another fan of the process; earlier this year, she wrote about cloning her beloved pup, Sammie, through a Texas-based lab.
The Korean lab now possesses pieces of mammoth meat taken from the carcass discovered in the New Siberian islands. Will they be able to engineer a living, breathing specimen from it? Frei isn’t optimistic: “I don’t really see that the chances are so big of finding a living cell after 28,000 years,” he says. But if the lab should succeed, one country is ready to show off the results: Russia. “They already have a park. Putin is a big friend of this project, because of tourism,” says Frei. “Everybody wants to see a woolly mammoth.”
Still, not everyone believes it’s such a good idea to unearth the past. “When I met Maxim, he told me he believes in the taboos about digging up mammoths,” says Frei, referring to local lore proclaiming the earth shouldn’t be disturbed unnecessarily, nor remains removed. “He wanted to give something back to Mother Earth. And, of course, they find a tusk and he gets excited and forgets, and they go home on the snowmobile, and they have an accident. His assistant’s camera went into a lake.”
But the 59-year-old Frei is still inclined to think (somewhat) positively about the prospect of a new era of woolly mammoths, cloned pets and more. “Synthetic biology is the next revolution,” he vows. “Not all of it will be horrible, at all.”
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