FINALLY: Mammoth genes inserted into elephant DNA

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

DNA from mammoths found in Arctic permafrost has been inserted into the genes of modern-day elephants, bringing the extinct mammal one step closer to roaming the Earth once again.

According to The Sunday Times, Harvard University genetics professor George Church and his colleagues took 14 genes from a well-preserved mammoth specimen and integrated them into an elephant, where they functioned as normal DNA.

Those genes, which were for traits that separated mammoths and elephants (such as hair and ear size) were replicated and inserted into the elephant using a precision-editing technique known as Crispr, which allowed them to  replace sections of elephant DNA with mammoth genes.

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“We prioritized genes associated with cold resistance including hairiness, ear size, subcutaneous fat and, especially, hemoglobin [the blood molecule that carries oxygen around the body],” he explained. “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.”

“I’m bringing mammoths back…yeah.”

Mammoths are closely related to Asian elephants, but the species died out during the last Ice Age, with the final members of the species surviving on  Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean until roughly 3,300 years ago, according to The Telegraph. The DNA used by the Church’s team and was obtained from these carcasses, which were well preserved by the permafrost.

So why bring back the mammoth? Professor Church believes that bringing back the massive, wooly creature could have a positive impact on ecosystems in Russia, according to RT.com. He noted that research has indicated that the presence of large mammals in the Siberian permafrost could help combat climate change-related melting occurring in that part of the world.

A million little pieces

Scientists who are hoping to bring back the extinct mammoth are in luck, Beth Shapiro of the University of California claims in her new book, How To Clone a Mammoth. She states that while the mammal’s DNA is in fragments, those fragments are well preserved.

“If we really want to bring mammoths back to life,” Shapiro said, “then we’re in luck, as far as DNA preservation goes. Some mammoths lived in places where their bones and carcasses were buried in permafrost, like being stuck in a freezer for 30,000-plus years.”

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“It’s in pretty shoddy condition, so hard to piece together,” the author explained, “but if we sort through these tiny pieces, finding where they fit along the elephant genome, then we can slowly build a lot of the mammoth genome.”

A modern day Ian Malcolm

However, experts such as Professor Alex Greenwood argues that bringing back the mammoth would be unethical in light of the dangers facing the extinct creature’s modern-day cousins.

“We face the potential extinction of African and Asian elephants,” he told The Telegraph. “Why bring back another elephantid from extinction when we cannot even keep the ones that are not extinct around?”

“What is the message? We can be as irresponsible with the environment as we want. Then we’ll just clone things back? Money would be better spent focusing on conserving what we do have than spending it on an animal that has been extinct for thousands of years,” Greenwood added.

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