S'pore-US team 'takes first step to reviving mammoth'

The team has produced, for the first time, a high-resolution genome or genetic blueprint of the woolly mammoth.
PHOTO: Reuters

Work by Singapore scientists on the long-extinct woolly mammoth is opening the door to resurrecting this ice age creature from the dead.

The team has produced, for the first time, a high-resolution genome or genetic blueprint of the giant mammal.

This is the first of many steps which would make it possible to bring it to life, said Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) Dr Stephan Schuster, who is part of the Singapore-United States team involved in the effort.

"I think there is a very deep connection between humans and mammoths. In the past, they provided meat, fur to cover houses, and there were settlements built using the ribcages of the mammoths," he said.

The team has already worked out the gene which gives the mammoth its characteristic fuzzy coat, and is looking at what the other 1,600 genes in the creature's DNA do.

This information would provide an instruction manual of sorts on how to change the DNA of the mammoth's closest living relative, the Asian elephant, to make it more mammoth-like.

Professor George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School in the US, is keen to do just that.

He and his team hope to make hybrids of Asian elephants and mammoths, which would be able to survive in the Arctic's minus 40 deg C temperatures.

"This could save the Asian elephants from extinction due to negative interactions with people, such as farmers," he explained.

The massive woolly mammoths - which could weigh over 6 tonnes and measure more than 4m in length - roamed the frozen tundra of northern Asia, Europe and North America. They likely became extinct due to climate change and hunting by early humans, and died out about 3,500 years ago.

The Singapore-US team, which consists of researchers from NTU, Penn State University and the University of Chicago, used next-generation sequencing to delve into the preserved hair of two woolly mammoths, and compared it with that of their living relatives, the Indian and African elephants.

The work done and technology honed in the effort have also given a boost to other groups studying the preserved DNA of extinct animals, sometimes as part of attempts to bring them back to life.

Scientists have already succeeded once, although the animal, a clone of the extinct Pyrenean ibex - a type of wild goat - lived for only 10 minutes. Other efforts have focused on the passenger pigeon and the aurochs, a giant cow.

As for the local team, their work is more than just about breathing life into long-dead animals.

Dr Schuster also believes that the current work could provide clues into the biology of extinction, and hopes to use the knowledge gleaned from the project to prevent other endangered creatures from meeting the same fate.

This article was first published on July 31, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.