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DNA in hair balls could give life to woolly mammoth

80% of Ice Age species' genetic code revealed

The project relied on woolly mammoth hair found frozen in the Siberian permafrost. The project relied on woolly mammoth hair found frozen in the Siberian permafrost.
By Seth Borenstein
Associated Press / November 20, 2008
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WASHINGTON - Scientists for the first time have unraveled much of the genetic code of an extinct animal, the Ice Age's woolly mammoth, and with it they are thawing "Jurassic Park" dreams.

Their groundbreaking achievement has them contemplating a once unimaginable future when certain prehistoric species might one day be resurrected.

"It could be done. The question is, just because we might be able to do it one day, should we do it?" asked Stephan Schuster, the Penn State University biochemistry professor and co-author of the new research. "I would be surprised to see if it would take more than 10 or 20 years to do it."

The million-dollar project is a first rough draft, detailing the more than 3 billion DNA building blocks of the mammoth, according to the study published in today's journal Nature. It's about 80 percent finished. But that's enough to give scientists new clues on the timing of evolution and the deadly intricacies of extinction.

The project relied on mammoth hair found frozen in the Siberian permafrost, instead of bone, giving biologists a new method to dig into ancient DNA. Think of it as CSI Siberia, said Schuster. That different technique - along with soaring improvements in genome sequencing and the still embryonic field of synthetic biology - are inspiring scientists to envision a science-fiction-like future.

Crucial to the mammoth mapping are about 20 hairballs. Past efforts to use ancient DNA were hampered because bacteria, viruses, and parasites crept into the bone fossils during the millennia-old degradation process, making much of the found genetic material something other than what scientists study. For example, current efforts to study Neanderthal DNA have been complicated because only about 6 percent of the recovered genetic material actually belonged to our ancient cousins.

Schuster says that it should be possible to someday re-create any extinct creature "within the last 100,000 years" as long as it got trapped in permafrost and had hair. But that leaves out the Jurassic Period, the time of dinosaurs.

So earth's real-life sequel to extinction is far more likely to be Ice Age 3 than "Jurassic Park IV."

Three years ago, Japanese scientists said they planned to find frozen mammoth sperm and impregnate an elephant and raise the offspring in a safari park in Siberia. But using genetics to engineer a mammoth makes more sense, Schuster said.

Anthropology professor Hendrik Poinar of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, said he no longer considers such ideas impossible. Poinar, who wasn't part of Schuster's study but consulted on the movie "Jurassic Park," said director Steven Spielberg may have had it right when he told skeptical scientists: "This is the science of eventuality."

And it doesn't have to be a full resurrected mammoth. Scientists could examine what makes the mammoth different from its closest cousin, the African elephant, and create a hairy hybrid to sit in zoos, said George Church, director of computational genomics at Harvard Medical School: "People would like to see a hairy elephant."

Alex Greenwood, a biology professor at Old Dominion University who also studies ancient DNA called the research "an amazing achievement."

The more practical side of what this new research will do is point out better the evolutionary differences between mammoths and elephants and even humans and chimps, said Church, who wasn't part of the study.

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