Scientists close to recreating woolly mammoth

March 23, 2015 01:22 am | Updated 01:22 am IST - London

Scientists may be one step closer to recreating the woolly mammoth after they successfully inserted 14 of the extinct animal’s genes into the live DNA of an elephant.

Researchers analysed DNA from mammoths preserved in Arctic permafrost and then used the results to reproduce exact copies of 14 mammoth genes. These were integrated into the elephant genome, where they functioned as normal DNA.

George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard University, used a new technique known as Crispr that allows scientists to make precision edits to DNA, replacing sections of elephant DNA with the mammoth genes. “We prioritised genes associated with cold resistance including hairiness, ear size, subcutaneous fat and, especially, haemoglobin [the blood molecule that carries oxygen around the body],” said Prof. Church, adding: “We now have functioning elephant cells with mammoth DNA in them.”

Mammoths are close relatives of Asian elephants, arising from a common ancestor that lived two and a half million to five million years ago. Mammoths largely died out in the last Ice Age, possibly because of human hunting. The last few survived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean until about 3,300 years ago, where their carcasses provided the DNA analysed by Church and his colleagues, The Sunday Times reported.

Other researchers are trying to reconstruct the whole mammoth genome, with at least three teams in the race.

The genome could one day become a template to recreate real mammoths — or something like them.

“If we identify part of the mammoth genome that looks distinct from elephant DNA and which might make a mammoth look and act like a mammoth, then we can synthesise it in the lab,” said Beth Shapiro of the University of California, an expert on ancient DNA.

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