Using hairs from frozen mammoth corpses, scientists at Penn State have mapped much of the woolly mammoth's genome, paving the way for possible resurrection in the near future.  (Source: Penn State University)

Hair from the mammoth proved to be an ideal source of DNA fragments as it contains a natural protective sheath around its core, preventing most viral or bacterial contamination.  (Source: Penn State University)
Visions of resurrecting prehistoric animals are getting a big boost from high-tech gene sequencing methods

Recently deceased author Michael Crichton left behind a rich legacy of science fiction, much of which tread closely on the borderline of plausibility.  Perhaps Mr. Crichton's most salient work, the novel Jurassic Park involved scientists using DNA and modern genetics to resurrect extinct dinosaur species.  DailyTech previously discussed how scientists were working as of last year to create a Pleistocene park, resurrecting mammoths and saber-tooth cats and other extinct creatures in a fantastic endeavor that would surely make the late author proud.

Now researchers at Penn State University have brought these dreams closer to reality, announcing that via next-generation instruments and groundbreaking DNA-reading techniques they have been able to unravel much of woolly mammoth's genetic code.

The woolly mammoth, a species of elephant all but extinct 10,000 years ago (a few dwarf members of the species lived on an island until 1,700 BC), was an impressive beast well adapted to the climate of the Ice Age.  Its sebaceous glands secreted a thick layer of fat into its fur to help it stay warm, an adaptation similar to whales' blubber.

Scientists speculate that with a complete genome of the species, efforts to clone it may be possible.  After all, scientists have already injected genes from extinct species into living ones successfully.  Stephan Schuster, a Penn State University biochemistry professor and co-author of the research states of the historic work, "This really is the first time that we have been able to study an extinct animal in the same detail as the ones living in our own time."

So far over 3.3 billion DNA building blocks, known as base pairs, have been sequenced in the mammoth genome.  The entire genome is expected to be around 4 billion base pairs long, similar to the modern elephant's genome, mapped at the Broad Institute by MIT and Harvard scientists. 

Almost a billion base pairs in the mammoth project were thrown out after being labeled as possible contaminants, part of the method that makes the complex sequencing challenge possible.  Advanced detection methods screened out genes from bacteria and fungi, keeping only those that were part of the woolly mammoth's genome.

Aside from resurrecting the beast, one key element of the research is to better understand why the species went extinct.  Study co-author and biologist Webb Miller states, "The team is searching the mammoth's genome for clues about its extinction."

In order to get genetic material scientists used two hairs from frozen mammoth mummies collected in Siberian permafrost.  The mammoths had been frozen for approximately 20,000 to 60,000 years.  Hair was selected as a DNA source as it had less viral, bacterial, or fungal contamination than DNA in bones.  Hair contains organic compounds like collagen that encase the DNA at the center of its shaft within a protective coat similar to plastic.

Finding the DNA, while an arduous task in and of itself was downright easy compared to the actual sequencing process.  Explains Professor Schuster, "It's like a mirror that you smash on the floor. Then, like a jigsaw puzzle, you try to piece the DNA back together."

The pieces were compared and contrasted to the African elephant's genome to develop a rough blueprint of the mammoth's code, figuring out what might fit where.

One early results of the genetic research was the indication that the mammoth species separated into two distinct populations approximately 2 million years ago.  One population perished approximately 45,000 years ago, while the aforementioned population lived on until about 10,000 years ago.

Curiously the two groups of mammoth lived in the same area, but were not interbreeding.  For this reason the mammoth genome appears to have lower genetic diversity than many modern species, a possible cause for extinction.

The research is featured in this Thursday's edition of the journal Nature.

Of course any talk about the mammoth genome inevitably returns to the concept of resurrection.  States Professor Schuster, "By deciphering this genome, we could, in theory, generate data that one day may help other researchers to bring the woolly mammoth back to life by inserting the uniquely mammoth DNA sequences into the genome of the modern-day elephant.  It could be done.  The question is, just because we might be able to do it one day, should we do it?"

And it is an intriguing ethical question at that.

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