In their efforts to provide further insight into modern extinctions, a team of scientists has finally succeeded in assembling the complete genome of two distinct woolly mammoths. Such a breakthrough can now serve as a stepping stone in our attempts of understanding how this wondrous species died out.
Led by a team of scientists from Stockholm’s Swedish Museum of Natural History, the international team which finally managed to decode the mammoth’s DNA published its findings in the scientific journal Current Biology.Scientists had hoped to discover whether the mammoth population they had been studying died out as a result of diminished DNA diversity.
As a species, wooly mammoths appeared approximately 700,000 years ago in Siberia. The animal began expanding all through North America and Eastern Europe. What this recent DNA study suggests is that the wooly mammoth population suffered at least a couple of significant population crashes, the first 280,000 years ago and the second 12,000 years ago. Inbreeding (as a result of the mammoth’s marooning on a Siberian island) contributed to the species’ complete extinction.
The first step was identifying wooly mammoth DNA samples that had been sufficiently preserved in order to allow sequencing. In the end, the team decided on two samples: the molar of a Wrangel Island wooly mammoth believed to have lived approximately 4,300 years ago and soft tissue from a wooly mammoth male believed to have lived in northeastern Siberia more than 44,000 years ago. After having identified their samples, the team used present day genomes) of African savanna elephants) as reference points in their work.
Mammal DNA is double-stranded. This means that, for every DNA molecule, there is one copy contributed from the mother and one copy contributed from the father. Researchers attempted to compare the two DNA copies in order to understand how closely related the father and mother of the two chosen wooly mammoths had been.
Such information would not only reveal if there was a lack of genetic diversity on Wrangel Island, but would also point towards the size of the mammoth population. The international team found that there was little variation between the DNA copies stemming from the father and the mother of their chosen mammoths.
Although such information can provide valuable insight into the extinction of this species, there are countless other possibilities scientists are looking into. One of these possibilities is bringing this majestic creature back to life. Several pioneer studies have attempted such a feat in the past. A 2008 Penn State study as well as a South Korean research team hoped to decode samples from wooly mammoth specimens.
The Long Now Foundation, for instance, has set a goal of producing new mammoths in the future, not by making exact copies of the extinct animals but by focusing on needed adaptations which would allow Asian elephants to live in colder climates.
Even if such a futuristic scenario may seem likely, scientists are still skeptical about its chances of success, especially since technical possibilities (as well as ethical constraints) cannot yet allow such a dream to materialize.
Image Source: pbs.org
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