Monday 26 June 2017

Mammoth 'back from extinction' in two years

An intact woolly mammoth skeleton on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania
An intact woolly mammoth skeleton on display at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania

Sarah Knapton in Boston

Woolly mammoths could be brought back from extinction within two years, the scientists behind a ground-breaking resurrection project have said.

World-renowned geneticist Prof George Church and his team at Harvard University have been working for the past two years on recreating the DNA blueprint of the mammoth.

They have used DNA from mammoths that were preserved in Arctic permafrost to look for the genes that separated them from elephants, such as those with code for a shaggy coat, big ears and antifreeze blood.

By splicing the mammoth genes into the genome of an elephant embryo, the team believe they can recreate a mammoth-elephant hybrid, which would have all the recognisable features of a mammoth.

Lab tests have already shown that cells function normally with mammoth and elephant DNA and the scientists now have ambitious plans to grow a mammoth embryo within an artificial womb rather than recruit a female elephant as a surrogate mother.

Since starting the project in 2015, the researchers have increased the number of "edits" where mammoth DNA has been spliced into the elephant genome from 15 to 45.

"We're working on ways to evaluate the impact of all these edits and basically trying to establish embryogenesis in the lab," Professor Church, who heads the Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival team, said.

"The list of edits affects things that contribute to the success of elephants in cold environments. We already know about ones to do with small ears, sub-cutaneous fat, hair and blood, but there are others that seem to be positively selected.

"Our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant/mammoth embryo. Actually it would be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits. We're not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years."

The woolly mammoth roamed across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America during the last Ice Age and vanished 4,500 years ago, probably due to a combination of climate change and hunting by humans.

Their closest living relative is the Asian elephant.

"De-extincting" the mammoth has become a realistic prospect because of revolutionary gene editing techniques that allow the precise selection and insertion of DNA from specimens frozen over millennia in Siberian ice.

Irish Independent

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