Woolly Mammoth Genome May Allow Scientists to 'Resurrect' Extinct Species

First Posted: Jul 03, 2015 07:09 AM EDT

Scientists have conducted the first comprehensive analysis of the woolly mammoth genome and have found extensive genetic changes that allowed mammoths to adapt to life in the arctic. The findings reveal a bit more about these massive creatures and show how they differed from their cousins, the elephants.

"This is by far the most comprehensive study to look at the genetic changes that make a woolly mammoth a woolly mammoth," said Vincent Lynch, one of the researchers, in a news release. "They are an excellent model to understand how morphological evolution works, because mammoths are so closely related to living elephants, which have none of the traits they had."

Woolly mammoths once roamed the frigid tundra steppes of northern Asia, Europe and North America about 10,000 years ago. These animals had long, course fur, a thick layer of subcutaneous fat, small ears and tails, and a brown-fat deposit behind the neck which may have functioned similar to a camel hunt.

In this latest study, the researchers deep sequenced the genomes of two woolly mammoths and three Asian elephants-the closest living relative of the mammoth. They then compared these genomes against each other and against the genome of African elephants, a slightly more distant evolutionary cousin to both mammoths and Asian elephants.

In all, the scientists identified about 1.4 million genetic variants unique to woolly mammoths. These caused changes to the proteins produced by around 1,600 genes, including 26 that lost function and one that was duplicated.

Genes with mammoth-specific changes were most strongly linked to fat metabolism, including brown fat regulation, insulin signaling, skin and hair development, temperature sensation and circadian clock biology. All of these features would have been important for adapting to extreme cold and seasonal variations in the Arctic.

While the researchers' efforts are targeted toward understanding the molecular basis of evolution, the high-quality sequencing could also serve to "de-extinct" the mammoth.

"Eventually we'll be technically able to do it," said Lynch. "But the question is: if you're technically able to do something, should you do it? I personally think no. Mammoths are extinct and the environment in which they lived has changed. There are many animals on the edge of extinction that we should be helping instead."

The findings are published in the journal Cell Reports.

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