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11/19/2008
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Woolly Mammoth Genome Sequenced

Just in time for global warming, scientists have sequenced the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth, last seen roaming the Earth about 10,000 years ago.

Just in time for global warming, scientists have sequenced the genome of the extinct woolly mammoth, last seen roaming the Earth about 10,000 years ago and in cudgel-and-sandals films like 10,000 BC.

"Previous studies on extinct organisms have generated only small amounts of data," said Stephan C. Schuster, the Penn State University biochemistry professor who co-authored the new research, in a statement. "Our data set is 100 times more extensive than any other published data set for an extinct species, demonstrating that ancient DNA studies can be brought up to the same level as modern genome projects."

Schuster told The Associated Press that eventually it should be possible to re-create any extinct creature that lived within the last 100,000 years, given suitable genetic material.

That appears to preclude the sort of dinosaur theme park depicted in the film Jurassic Park -- the Jurassic period spanned from about 206 million to 144 million years ago.

However, Pleistocene Park has potential -- think saber-toothed tigers, giant ground sloths, and Neanderthal tour guides.

"[B]y deciphering this genome we could, in theory, generate data that one day may help other researchers to bring the woolly mammoth back to life by inserting the uniquely mammoth DNA sequences into the genome of the modern-day elephant," Schuster said in a statement. "This would allow scientists to retrieve the genetic information that was believed to have been lost when the mammoth died out, as well as to bring back an extinct species that modern humans have missed meeting by only a few thousand years."

For ancient humans, meeting a woolly mammoth may have been a real treat: According to the Mammoth Genome Project, "the enormous amount of meat coming from a six- to eight-ton animal ... would have fed 400 people for several weeks."

The natural refrigeration available when mammoth was "what's for dinner" may have made it possible to keep mammoth meat fresh for several weeks. Unfortunately, experiments suggest chilled mammoth meat probably smelled and tasted like Limburger cheese. Of course, hygiene standards, not to mention dietary options, were different then.

Before any of this happens, however the researchers -- from Penn State, the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, the Zoological Institute in Russia, the University of California, the Broad Institute, Roche Diagnostics, and the Sperling Foundation -- have further work to do.

The genome data set now consists of 4 billion DNA bases, but Schuster and his colleagues believe that only 3.3 billion of them belong in the mammoth genome. The extra DNA bases could belong to bacteria, fungi, or something else that might have contaminated the genetic sample, comprised of hairs from a frozen mammoth recovered from the Siberian permafrost.

So the scientists have to clean up their genomic data. If and when tomorrow's aspiring P.T. Barnum decides to revive the species for science or showmanship, he won't want his woolly mammoth to have, say, a mushroom for a head.

To help arrive at a functional woolly mammoth genome, the researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard are sequencing the genome of the African elephant for comparison.

"Only after the genome of the African elephant has been completed will we be able to make a final assessment about how much of the full woolly-mammoth genome we have sequenced," said Webb Miller, a professor of biology, computer science, and engineering at Penn State, in a statement.

This work, however, awaits further funding.

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