Coming  soon to a zoo near you: Live mammoths (maybe) 

By Nicholas Wade 
Published: November 19, 2008

NEW YORK: For the first time, scientists are talking about resurrecting an 
extinct species as if this longtime staple of science fiction were a realistic 
possibility, saying that a living mammoth could perhaps be regenerated for as 
little as $10 million.

The same technology could be applied to any other extinct species from which 
one could obtain hair, horn, hooves, fur or feathers, and which went extinct 
within the last 60,000 years. Though the stuffed animals in natural history 
museums are not likely to burst into life again, these old collections are full 
of items that may contain ancient DNA that can be decoded by the new generation 
of DNA sequencing machines.

If the genome of an extinct species can be reconstructed, biologists can work 
out the exact DNA differences with the genome of its nearest living relative. 
There are now discussions of how to modify the DNA in an elephant's egg so 
that, generation by generation, it would progressively resemble the DNA in a 
mammoth egg. The final-stage egg could then be brought to term in an elephant 
mother, and mammoths might once again roam the Siberian steppes. The same would 
be technically possible with Neanderthals, whose full genome is expected to be 
recovered shortly. Ethically, that would be more challenging.

A scientific team headed by Stephan Schuster and Webb Miller at Pennsylvania 
State University report in the Thursday issue of Nature that they have 
recovered a large fraction of the mammoth genome from clumps of mammoth hair. 
Mammoths were driven to extinction toward the end of the last ice age, some 
10,000 years ago, after the first modern humans learned how to survive and hunt 
in the steppes of Siberia.

Schuster and Miller said there was no technical obstacle to decoding the full 
mammoth genome, which they believe could be achieved for a further $2 million. 
They have already been able to calculate that the mammoth's genome differs at 
around 400,000 sites from that of the African elephant.

There is no way at present to synthesize a genome-sized chunk of mammoth DNA, 
let alone to develop it into a whole animal. But Schuster said a short-cut 
would be to modify the genome of an elephant's cell at the 400,000 or more 
sites necessary to make it resemble a mammoth's genome. The cell could be 
converted into an embryo and brought to term by an elephant, a project he 
estimated would cost some $10 million.

Such a project would have been judged entirely impossible a few years ago, and 
is far from reality even now. Still, several technical barriers have fallen in 
surprising ways. One is that ancient DNA is always shredded into tiny pieces, 
seemingly impossible to analyze. But a new generation of DNA decoding machines 
uses tiny pieces as their starting point. Schuster's laboratory has two, known 
as 454 machines, each of which costs $500,000.

Another problem has been that ancient DNA in bone, the usual source, is heavily 
contaminated with bacterial DNA. Schuster has found that hair is a much purer 
source of the host's DNA, with the keratin serving to seal it in and largely 
exclude bacteria.

A third issue is that the DNA of living cells can be modified, but only very 
laboriously and usually at one site at a time. Schuster said he had been in 
discussion with George Church, a well known genome technologist at the Harvard 
Medical School, about a new method Church has invented for modifying some 
50,000 genomic sites at a time.

The method has not yet been published, and until other scientists can assess it 
they are likely to view genome engineering on such a scale as being 
implausible. Rudolph Jaenisch, a biologist at the Whitehead Institute in 
Cambridge, said the proposal to resurrect a mammoth was "a wishful thinking 
experiment with no realistic chance for success."

Church, however, said there had recently been enormous technical improvements 
in decoding genomes and that he expected similar improvements in genome 
engineering. In his new method, some 50,000 corrective DNA sequences are 
injected into a cell at one time. The cell would then be tested and subjected 
to further rounds of DNA modification until judged close enough to that of the 
ancient species.

In the case of resurrecting the mammoth, Church said, the process would begin 
by taking a skin cell from an elephant and converting it to the embryonic state 
with a method developed last year by Shinya Yamanaka for reprogramming cells.

Asked if the mammoth project might indeed happen, Church said that "there is 
some enthusiasm for it," although making zoos better did not outrank fixing the 
energy crisis on his priority list.

Schuster says he believes that museums could prove gold mines of ancient DNA 
because any animal remains containing keratin, from hooves to feathers, could 
hold enough DNA for the full genome to be recovered by the new sequencing 

The full genome of the Neanderthals, an ancient human species probably driven 
to extinction by the first modern humans that entered Europe some 45,000 years 
ago, is expected to be recovered shortly. If the mammoth can be resurrected, 
the same would be technically possible for Neanderthals.

But the process of genetically engineering a human genome into the Neanderthal 
version would probably raise many objections, as would several other aspects of 
such a project.

"Catholic teaching opposes all human cloning, and all production of human 
beings in the laboratory, so I do not see how any of this could be ethically 
acceptable in humans," said Richard Doerflinger, an official with the U.S. 
Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Church said there might be an alternative approach that would "alarm a minimal 
number of people." The workaround would be to modify not a human genome but 
that of the chimpanzee, which is about 98 percent similar to that of people. 
The chimp's genome would be progressively modified until close enough to that 
of Neanderthals, and the embryo brought to term in a chimpanzee.

"The big issue would be whether enough people felt that a chimp-Neanderthal 
hybrid would be acceptable, and that would be broadly discussed before anyone 
started to work on it," Church said.



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