Crichton's Dream Survives: Woolly Mammoth Genome 50% Complete

By Nina Bai | November 19, 2008 6:01 pm

woollyThe genome of the woolly mammoth is halfway sequenced and science-fiction fanatics are once again talking about resurrecting extinct species–except this time, the scientists are talking too. Researchers at Pennsylvania State University extracted DNA from the hair of two woolly mammoths found in the permafrost of Siberia; one lived about 20,000 years ago, the other about 60,000 years ago. Reporting in Nature [subscription required], the researchers say they have already sequenced more than three billion base pairs of the mammoth genome, and they say there should be no technical obstacles to sequencing the complete genome. “It’s a technical breakthrough,” says ancient-DNA expert Hendrik N. Poinar [Scientific American].

Access to clumps of preserved mammoth hair was essential to the researchers’ success. The tough keratin that makes up the hair encased the mammoth’s DNA and separated it from any alien fragments, keeping these samples more pure [New Scientist]. Horns and feathers are also made of keratin, broadening the prospects of sequencing other extinct species from museum specimens.

Thus far the mammoth genome exists only in bits and pieces: it has not yet been assembled. The researchers are awaiting completion of the genome of the African savanna elephant, a cousin of the woolly mammoth, which will serve as a road map for how to reconstruct the extinct animal’s genome [Scientific American]. From what they have seen so far, the researchers say that extinct mammoths and living elephants are closer relatives than once thought, with only half the variation that exists between humans and chimps [New Scientist]. Analysis of multiple mammoth genomes may help chart their evolution and reveal the insurmountable factors that led to their disappearance about 10,000 years ago.

The similarities between woolly mammoths and elephants suggests a way to resurrect the extinct species. According to researcher Stephen Schuster, in theory it would be possible to genetically modify an elephant egg cell to closely approximate a mammoth egg cell. The cell could be converted into an embryo and brought to term by an elephant, a project he estimated would cost some $10 million [New York Times]. Schuster believes 400,000 base pair changes would be sufficient to create a mammoth look-alike while several million could create a near replica. New DNA technology currently being developed would be able to modify several thousand genomic sites at once.

A true Jurassic Park scenario, in which dinosaurs are brought back to life, would be more difficult because of a lack of closely related living surrogates.

Related Content:
80beats: The Last Mammoths Made a Round Trip Across the Bering Strait Bridge
80beats: A Woolly Mammoth Evolutionary Smackdown
Discoblog: Top 5 “Crazy” Michael Crichton Ideas That Actually Came True

Image: flickr / Hawkoffire

  • Jumblepudding

    cloning dinosaurs-1.find DNA of extinct primitive bird 2.use most primitive, living bird as surrogate 3 .use eventual, resulting population of revived bird species as surrogates for even more primitive species your way backward with DNA and species until you have theropod dinosaurs, who could possibly then be used as surrogates for Sauropods. It may take hundreds of years and a lot of dino genetic material that we don’t have, but it’s kind of a leap to think we could get a dino genome in the first place, so why not?

  • Dov Henis

    Mammoth-Elephant And Human-Chimp

    A. From “Mammoth genome approaching completion”
    Genetic material extracted from the hair of woolly mammoths has revealed new information about the extinct creatures, including how closely related they are to modern elephants.

    So far, the estimated overlap between the mammoth genome and that of the African elephant is about 99.4 percent…the two species last had a common ancestor about 7.6 million years ago… the rate of genetic change in elephants and their kin is about half that seen in humans and their kin during the same period…Humans and chimps last shared a common ancestor about 7 million years ago, and the genomes of these two species differ by about 1.24 percent…

    B. See the brief “Seed of Human-Chimp Genomes Diversity” at–?cq=1&p=179

    A guaranteed eye-opener for this matter…

    Dov Henis

    (A DH Comment From The 22nd Century)–?cq=1

  • Stephen Gross

    Stephen Schuster’s comment completely ignores some basic tenets of genetics and molecular biology, and it is more or less a ploy for press coverage and a disservice to real science. While it is great to sequence a genome and have those sequences for analysis, synthesizing a mammalian genome de novo is currently science fiction. It would be incredibly expensive just to develop the technology to synthesize chromosome-sized molecules of DNA (billions of bases long), or to replace the sequences in a pre-existing elephant genome (another fictional technology). In addition, we do not understand how to manipulate and re-create epigenetic marks needed to regulate mammoth genes correctly. DNA is associated with proteins and chemical modifications that tell genes when to turn on or off, a critical part of how genes control the development of an organism. Injecting naked DNA into an elephant cell wouldn’t work. Sorry, but Jurassic Park isn’t going to happen in 10 years.

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