Technology and Science

Return of the woolly mammoth: Scientists take giant step towards recreating extinct beast after inserting 14 genes into elephants

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  • Scientists study structure of DNA from mammoths preserved in Arctic
  • Exact copies of 14 of animal’s genes integrated into elephant genome 
  • New method ‘Crispr’ helps researchers make accurate changes to DNA

A huge step towards recreating the woolly mammoth has been taken by scientists who inserted more than a dozen of its genes into the live DNA of an elephant.

Researchers studied the structure of DNA from mammoths preserved in the Arctic to reproduce exact copies of 14 of the extinct animal’s genes.

These were then integrated by experts at Harvard University in Massachusetts into the elephant genome – and functioned as normal DNA.

A new method known as ‘Crispr’ – helping scientists make accurate changes to DNA – was used by genetics professor George Church, who replaced parts of elephant DNA with the mammoth genes.

He said: ‘We prioritised genes associated with cold resistance including hairiness, ear size, subcutaneous fat and, especially, haemoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen around the body).’

‘De-extinction’ enthusiast Mr Church, who was speaking to The Sunday Times science editor Jonathan Leake, added: ‘We now have functioning elephant cells with mammoth DNA in them.’

Mammoths co-existed with early humans who hunted them for food.

Comparison: The mammoth was roughly the size as a modern African elephant, standing up to 11ft tall

Comparison: The mammoth was roughly the size as a modern African elephant, standing up to 11ft tall

They are the best studied of all prehistoric animals thanks to the discovery of frozen carcasses, as well as dung and skeletons.

The mammoth was roughly the size as a modern African elephant, standing up to 11ft tall and weighing about seven tonnes, and its fur and long hair protected it from severe winters.

There are at least three teams trying to rebuild the whole mammoth genome – which could one day become a template to recreate actual mammoths, reported The Sunday Times.

But ancient DNA expert Professor Alex Greenwood said: ‘Money would be better spent focusing on conserving what we do have – than spending it on an animal that has been extinct for thousands of years.’

Last week, MailOnline reported how scientists had begun extracting DNA from the remains of a mammoth found in Siberia, taking bone marrow samples from its front left leg.

The samples will be examined at a laboratory in Yakutsk, Russia, and by scientists in South Korea – with the hope of one day being able to clone one of the prehistoric animals.

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