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Could extinct woolly mammoth soon be revived using fossil DNA?

March 26, 2013|By Amina Khan
  • An intact baby woolly mammoth that was discovered by a Siberian reindeer herder in 2007 had been preserved in the frozen soil of the Arctic for about 40,000 years. Scientists say they may soon be able to revive ancient and extinct animals like the woolly mammoth using DNA fragments.
An intact baby woolly mammoth that was discovered by a Siberian reindeer… (Ria Novosti )

Will scientists soon be able to revive the long-extinct woolly mammoth? What about the dodo, the Chinese river dolphin or the saber-toothed cat?

With the great technological leaps forward over the past decade, bringing back dead-and-gone species using DNA preserved in fossils might be possible in the near future, researchers said this month at a TEDx event in Washington, D.C.

That doesn’t mean Jurassic Park will ever become a reality; scientists recently calculated DNA’s half-life to be 521 years, which means that dinosaur DNA could not have survived from their extinction 65 million years ago. But perhaps the makers of the animated movie “Ice Age” may have an excuse to write yet another sequel.

"The revival of an extinct species is actually within reach," Hendrik Poinar, an evolutionary biologist at McMaster University in Canada, said at the event.

Scientists would have to choose which creatures to revive based on certain criteria, according to a project called Revive & Restore, which co-hosted the de-extinction talks with the National Geographic Society. Among the questions: Is it an iconic or beloved animal? Did it play an important ecological role in its environment? And is this particular species actually doable?

Though the woolly mammoth’s genome is long -- with some 2 billion more DNA base pairs than hominids’ 3 billion -- it holds an advantage over other defunct species, Poinar said: Because they lived (and died) in icy environments, their preserved remains degrade more slowly over time.

DNA quickly breaks down into tiny fragments usually just tens of base-pairs long. So scientists could take the known DNA code of living elephants and use it as scaffolding on which to fit the woolly mammoth DNA fragments, Poinar said.

If an embryo containing that retroengineered DNA was borne by a female elephant, Poinar said, such a baby beast would be "something that looked and felt very much like a woolly mammoth did."

But would it really be a woolly mammoth if it behaved like its elephant mother? What about any potential ecological impacts of bringing back extinct species? These and other such questions merit further thought, Poinar said.

"We have to think very deeply about the implications, ramifications of our actions," he said.

Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.

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