Bioengineering might soon enable us to bring long gone animals back to life, à la Jurassic Park. Recently, a team of scientists at Harvard University managed to insert wooly mammoth DNA into the genome of its closest relative - the Asian elephant.
Woolly mammoths might have first appeared 400,000 years ago, but they did not disappear from mainland Eurasia and North America until about 10,000 years ago. A small population of mammoths have been discovered to have lived for another 6,000 years on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. Luckily, the icy lands where these animals used to live preserved their bodies in remarkable conditions. However, their DNA have deteriorated over the years with the presence of microbes and water.
Scientists have been able to extract fragmentary DNA samples from these frozen fossils, but they still have to find enough samples in order to carry out cloning experiments. However, genetics professor George Church and his team at Harvard are using the Asian elephant in order to recreate the mammoth DNA. The team compares the DNA of the mammoth with that of its closest relative in order to find the essential differences between the two. Later, they proceed to cut specific parts of the elephant genome and insert the desired mammoth genes.
“We prioritized genes associated with cold resistance, including hairiness, ear size, subcutaneous fat and, especially, hemoglobin -the molecule in red blood cells that transports oxygen around the body" Church told the Sunday Times. "We now have functioning elephant cells with mammoth DNA in them. We have not published it in a scientific journal because there is more work to do, but we plan to do so”.
Although there are ethical concerns about the experiment, Church believes that a large population of mammoths could actually be useful to the Arctic tundra. "The Siberian permafrost is melting with climate change, but research suggests large mammals could stabilize it” he said.