A Mammoth Undertaking

Apologies for the lapse in posts, I’ve been away at a scientific conference all week and just got back! I hope you all enjoyed the article by our guest author while I was away. More about the conference to come later. For now, let’s talk Woolly Mammoths!

Among today’s headlines in science news is that researchers are close to bringing the woolly mammoth back from extinction through cloning techniques. Truth is, we’re really not. We’re just one step closer to it. Here’s a breakdown of the situation:

  • What actually happened was that scientists took sections of the woolly mammoth’s DNA (ctrl+c) and inserted them (ctrl+v) into the DNA of skin cells from an Asian elephant. The cool thing is, it actually worked because the inserted genes seemed to function properly. At least according to an interview with Dr. Church, head of the research unit conducting the study. Sarah Fecht of Popular Science writes that Dr. Church says more work is needed before the study can be published in a peer-review journal.
  •  The next step is to take the cells containing both elephant and woolly mammoth DNA, and try to stimulate them to transform themselves into specialized tissue cells, such as blood cells of liver cells. Which is a very daunting task we’ve been working on for decades. The end game would be to eventually create an embryo that has a combination of elephant/woolly mammoth DNA in it, and successfully implant it into an elephant’s womb.
  • Why go through all the effort to do this? As Betty Laseter of Maine News Online reports, Dr. Church wants to bring these beasts back from extinction, because their populations are in danger due to habitat overlap with humans. Dr. Church believes that by genetically engineering a new type of Asian elephant more adapted to living in the cold, we can start relocating Asian elephants to the northern tundra areas of Asia, an are not readily inhabited by humans. Furthermore, he believes doing so might allow these frozen tundra areas to be reclaimed by grasslands, an event that could help slow global warming. That’s because bacteria in the frozen tundra soil produce a lot of greenhouse gasses, and without anything (i.e. grass)  to help insulate the frozen tundra, the greenhouse gasses get released into the air when the frozen tundra melts every year.

So the bottom line is we’re not going to be seeing any woolly mammoths anytime soon. In fact, these researchers are more interested in making an mammoth/elephant hybrid, and not  a purebred woolly mammoth. That being said, the important thing here is that scientists were able to insert genes from an extinct animal into living cells, and then get the genes to function properly. Which is kinda really cool if you think about it!

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