Woolly mammoth genome comes to life

By Jane Christmas, December 19, 2005

    Hendrik Poinar, a geneticist with McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, has succesfully sequenced a portion of the genome from a woolly mammoth. Poinar is pictured with the remains of Dima, a baby woolly mammoth unearthed in 1977.(Photo credit: D. Poinar)
A McMaster University geneticist, in collaboration with genome researchers from Penn State University and the American Museum of Natural History has made history by mapping a portion of the woolly mammoth's genome. The discovery, which has astounded the scientific world, surpasses a study released Dec. 19 by Nature that also concerns the woolly mammoth.

Hendrik Poinar, a molecular evolutionary geneticist in the department of anthropology and pathology at McMaster University, says his study involves the vital nuclear DNA within a mammoth rather than the lesser mitochondria, on which the Nature study is based.

"Mitochondria is so 1980s. It only allows you to look at the maternal side of evolution," says Poinar. "The nuclear DNA we've mapped gives us our first glimpse at both sides of evolution. We can sequence Neanderthals, animals, plants. Basically, if we find a well-preserved specimen, we can sequence its genome."

The discovery occurred when Poinar extracted DNA from a well-preserved mammoth specimen found in the Siberian permafrost, and sent it to his research colleagues at Penn State, who had just taken possession of the latest technology in genome sequencing. Within hours, his colleagues reported that the machine had sequenced 30 million base pairs, about one percent of the entire mammoth genome. At this rate, it will take a year to map the entire genome, says Poinar. Funding is currently being sought for the completion of this project.

"We were stunned," says Poinar. "We immediately understood the magnitude of this discovery. Once you successfully sequence a genome, there are a million interesting questions one can begin to address. To acquire the genome of an extinct species is a rare feat. With this level of genetic data we can begin to look at genes to determine what makes a mammoth a mammoth. We can finally understand the subtle differences between a mammoth and its closest living relative, the Indian elephant, but more importantly our discovery means that recreating extinct hybrid animals is theoretically possible."

Woolly mammoths, which have become symbols of the Ice Age, died out 10,000 years ago.

"Naturally there are ethical issues that come with a discovery of this magnitude, and McMaster is already planning the first conference devoted to the ethics of bringing extinct organisms back to life," said Mamdouh Shoukri, vice-president research and international affairs. "We have an obligation as scientists to explore and maintain the responsible use of research."

The study, to be published Dec. 22 in Science, was funded by McMaster University, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Penn State University.