A team of international scientists are extracting high quality DNA from the remains of a woolly mammoth that lived 43,000 years ago, with the aim of joining it with the DNA of an elephant, they told The Siberian Times Thursday. Results from the necropsy of the woolly mammoth in Yakutsk, Sakha Republic — due to wind up Saturday after more than 10 months of analysis — has caused “palpable excitement” within the team of scientists, hailing from Russia, the UK, the United States, Denmark, South Korea, and Moldova.
“The data we are about to receive will give us a high chance to clone the mammoth,” Radik Khayrullin, vice president of the Russian Association of Medical Anthropologists, told The Siberian Times in Yakutsk. He urged responsibility in any attempts to clone the woolly mammoth. “It is one thing to clone it for scientific purpose, and another to clone for the sake of curiosity,” he said. Geneticists are reportedly searching for an Asian elephant whose egg could be injected with cloned material from the woolly mammoth. That same or another female elephant would be the surrogate mother of the resulting fertilzed egg. Any resulting wooly mammoth/elephant hybrid baby would have to be female, since there is no y-chromosome material from the wooly mammoth, who was a female. At any rate, such a procedure would take decades to perfect, experts said.
Semyon Grigoriev, head of the Museum of Mammoths of the Institute of Applied Ecology of the North at the North Eastern Federal University, told The Siberian Times that because the evolutionary paths of the mammoth and the elephant diverged so long ago, cloning will be challenging. However, the samples will allow geneticists to completely decode the DNA of the mammoth.
The Russian woolly mammoth was between 50 and 60 years old when she died. Though the upper part of her carcass has been devoured by animals, the lower part (the legs and a detached trunk) was “astonishingly, very well preserved,” Viktoria Egorova, chief of the research and clinical diagnostic laboratory of the medical clinic of North-Eastern Federal University told The Siberian Times. The mammoth, which may have met her demise by falling through a hole in the ice, lay in the permafrost of Maly Lyakhovskiy Island until it was found last May.
The mammoth as a species disappeared from Siberia at the end of the Pleistocene era about 10,000 years ago, with warming climate and hunting by humans thought to be contributing factors. An isolated population of woolly mammoths persisted on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, between the Chukchi and East Siberian Seas, until around 4,000 years ago.
‘We have dissected the soft tissues of the mammoth, and I must say that we didn’t expect such results,” Dr. Egorova told The Siberian Times. The necropsy revealed well-preserved muscle and adipose tissues (loose connective tissues which store fat), and “blood vessels with strong walls,” and within intact blood vessels themselves, for the first time ever in an ancient carcass of an extinct animal, erythrocytes, or red blood cells that contain the oxygen-carrying molecule hemoglobin, Egorova told The Siberian Times.
Biologists have been able to discern cells within the woolly mammoth’s blood that had been in the process of migration (involved in growth and healing) within the lymphoid tissue when the woolly mammoth died, a finding Egorova termed “another great discovery.” The intestines contained remains of the vegetation eaten by the mammoth; its multi-chambered stomach was preserved, as was a kidney, which contained fragments Egorova suspects are kidney stones.
One of the Canadian scientists looking foward to anayzing blood samples from the woolly mammoth is Kevin Campbell, a University of Manitoba professor of environmental and evolutionary physiology who has rearched and written on the subject of hemoglobin in woolly mammoths. In 2010, Campbell wrote a letter in the journal Nature Genetics describing how he had genetically resurrected and analyzed woolly mammoth hemoglobin “to reveal for the first time…the structural underpinnings of a key adaptive physiochemical trait in an extinct species.” He discovered that whereas the efficiency of hemoglobin in elephants to offload oxygen to respiring cells is hampered at low temperatures, mammoth hemoglobin has amino acid substitutions that “provide a unique solution to this problem and thereby minimize energetically costly heat loss.” Since then, Campbell has recreated the hemoglobin of woolly mammoths.
Campbell, who described himself as “bitterly disappointed” that he couldn’t make the necropsy of the woolly mammoth in Russia, said he would be doing the next best thing next week; joining one of his collaborators, Roy E. Weber at Aarhus University, Denmark who will be returning from Russia with some muscle and blood samples extracted from the woolly mammoth. If nothing else, the blood samples may allow Campbell to verify the presence of cold-tolerant hemoglobin in woolly mammoths. “It’s one thing to synthesize mammoth hemoglobin in bacteria: It’s quite another story to study the real thing from a 43,000 year-old specimen,” Campbell told the International Science Times. “No other specimen has ever been so well preserved that we could potentially obtain hemoglobin oxygen-binding data from it. This specimen offers the unique opportunity to collect precisely the same kind of physiologically relevant information from an extinct species as I could from those that are still alive.”
Climate change (as destructive a force as it is for the planet) has proven to be a boon for evolutionary physiologists interested in examining extinct animals. “One of the dirty little secrets of this field is that the increased melting of the North affords the finding of many, many more specimens,” Campbell said. “I don’t want to encourage further global warming, but it is a benefit from permafrost melting and so much being exposed, that they are finding woolly rhinos, bison, a crazy number of ancient horses and specimens in the Canadian and Russian Arctic.” Gold mining and industrial development has also unearthed more prehistoric animals than ever before in human history.
The researchers who peformed the autopsy on the woolly mammoth will hold a conference in Greece in May to announce the results.