Resurrection of woolly mammoths in the offing

Washington: Scientists have for the first time catalogued the entire mammoth genome, a feat that could serve as a recipe for engineering elephants that are able to survive in Siberia.

The catalogue of genetic differences between woolly mammoths and elephants revealed how ice-age giants braved the cold.

In the latest study, Vincent Lynch, evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, and his team described how they sequenced the genomes of three Asian elephants and two woolly mammoths.

They found about 1.4 million DNA letters that differ between mammoths and elephants, that altered the sequence of more than 1,600 protein-coding genes.

Combing the literature for information about what those proteins do in other organisms, revealed dozens of genes implicated in skin and hair development, fat storage and metabolism, temperature sensation, and other aspects of biology potentially relevant to life in the Arctic.

“The work is a preamble to editing an entire woolly mammoth genome – and perhaps even resurrecting the woolly mammoth, or at least giving an Asian elephant enough mammoth genes to survive in the Arctic,” Lynch said.

A 16-square-km reserve in north Siberia, known as Pleistocene Park, has even been proposed as a potential home for such a population of cold-tolerant elephants.

Unlike their elephant cousins, woolly mammoths were creatures with long hairy coats, thick layers of fat and small ears that kept heat loss to a minimum.

The research reveals how woolly mammoths evolved from the ancestor they shared with Asian elephants.

For instance, several of the genes with changes unique to the mammoths were involved in setting the circadian clock, a potential adaptation to living in a world with dark winters and 24 hours of daylight in summer.

“Other Arctic animals such as some reindeer have similar mutations,” the authors added.

“These are genes we would need to alter in an elephant genome to create an animal that was mostly an elephant, but actually able to survive somewhere cold,” said Beth Shapiro, evolutionary geneticist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who was not involved in the latest research.

The study was posted on the biology preprint server bioRxiv.org.

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