Researchers map genomes of woolly mammoths, raising possibility of bringing them back

mammoth leg

Mammoth remains found on the Taimyr Pennisula in Siberia. An international team of researchers has sequenced the genome of the mammoth, offering new information on what may have led to its extinction at the end of the last Ice Age.

An international team of researchers has sequenced the nearly complete genome of two Siberian woolly mammoths—revealing the most complete picture to date—including new information about the species’ evolutionary history and the conditions that led to its mass extinction at the end of the Ice Age.

“This discovery means that recreating extinct species is a much more real possibility, one we could in theory realize within decades,” says evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar, director of the Ancient DNA Centre at McMaster University and a researcher at the Institute for Infectious Disease Research, the senior Canadian scientist on the project.

“With a complete genome and this kind of data, we can now begin to understand what made a mammoth a mammoth—when compared to an elephant—and some of the underlying causes of their extinction which is an exceptionally difficult and complex puzzle to solve,” he says.

While scientists have long argued that climate change and human hunting were major factors behind the mammoth’s extinction, the new data suggests multiple factors were at play over their long evolutionary history.

Researchers from McMaster, Harvard Medical School, the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Stockholm University and others produced high-quality genomes from specimens taken from the remains of two male woolly mammoths, which lived about 40,000 years apart.

One had lived in northeastern Siberia and is estimated to be nearly 45,000 years old. The other –believed to be from one of the last surviving mammoth populations—lived approximately 4,300 years ago on Russia’s Wrangel Island, located in the Arctic Ocean.

“We found that the genome from one of the world’s last mammoths displayed low genetic variation and a signature consistent with inbreeding, likely due to the small number of mammoths that managed to survive on Wrangel Island during the last 5,000 years of the species’ existence,” says Love Dalén, an associate professor of Bioinformatics and Genetics at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.

McMaster around the globe

Daily Planet, The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, CBC TV’s The National, Toronto Star, Associated Press, Canadian Press, Seattle Times, Washington Post, Miami Herald, CBS Radio, Daily Planet, CBS News online, CTV News, Vice News, National Post, CBC online, CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks, The Calgary Herald, The Hamilton Spectator, were among the outlets to cover research by an international team featuring Hendrik Poinar (Anthropology), who sequenced the most complete genome ever of the woolly mammoth, opening the door to the possibility of cloning. Earlier, The Independent (UK) had interviewed Poinar for a story on the related subject of de-extinction.

Scientists used sophisticated technology to tease bits and pieces of highly fragmented DNA from the ancient specimens, which they then used to sequence the genomes.

Through careful analysis, they determined the animal populations had suffered and recovered from a significant setback roughly 250,000 to 300,000 years ago. However, say researchers, another severe decline occurred in the final days of the Ice Age, marking the end.

“The dates on these current samples suggest that when Egyptians were building pyramids, there were still mammoths living on these islands,” says Poinar. “Having this quality of data can help with our understanding of the evolutionary dynamics of elephants in general and possible efforts at de-extinction”.

The latest research is the continuation of the pioneering work Poinar and his team began in 2006, when they first mapped a partial mammoth genome, using DNA extracted from carcasses found in permafrost in the Yukon and Siberia.

The study is published online in the Cell Press journal Current Biology.

Would woolly mammoths be good candidates for de-extinction? Hendrik Poinar explains: