Woolly mammoths are one step closer to being resurrected. Genome analysis shed light into the specific traits of the ice-age icons.
The distant relatives of Asian elephants, woolly mammoths were until recently a mystery to the scientific community. What made them thrive as they did in the freezing Arctic?
With that question in mind, a team of researchers took to the genetic material collected from two woolly mammoths and three Asian elephants in search for an answer.
The results were widely resounding. The researchers found what made the woolly mammoth so special while at the same time testing their hypothesis by transplanting a gene from the Ice Age giant into a human cell.
Vincent Lynch, co-author of the study and evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago stated:
“It won’t be that long till we’re technically able to do it, but whether we should is a different question. I don’t think we should”,
referring to the resurrection of a woolly mammoth.
The woolly mammoth genetic material came from two specimens which have disappeared roughly between 20,000 to 60,000 years ago. Their genomes were compared to those of the three Asian elephants.
What made the woolly mammoths so unique, the researchers argue, were the 1.4 million genetic variants that were the key factor in surviving the cold of the Arctic. Mainly, the variants were responsible for producing changes in the proteins produced by 1,600 different genes.
Different proteins pinpoint different features, both physically and biochemically. Therefore, it was the proteins that dictated the different lipid metabolism of the woolly mammoth, their circadian rhythm, as well as the development of hair and skin.
At the same time, these significantly different proteins led to a different temperature sensation, possibly due to the fat tissue formation as well.
To test the findings resulted from the genome analysis, the researchers went on to resurrect the TRPV3 gene into a human kidney cell. TRPV3 is a gene responsible for temperature sensation, as well as the regulation of hair growth.
After the transplant in the human cell, TRPV3 started producing a protein that was observed to be less responsive to heat than are for instance those of modern Asian elephants.
For the team, this meant a clear indication that TRPV3 contributed to tolerance to cold Arctic temperatures.
As to what exactly did these genomes do in terms of shaping physical traits is not yet clear. Perhaps the full scale resurrection of the woolly mammoth could provide more answers to this question.
George Church, Harvard University geneticist explained that his team is working to resurrect the woolly mammoth by splicing woolly mammoth genes into the modern day Asian elephant cells, thus creating a hybrid that could return answers to many questions still boggling the scientific community.
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