Using 20 balls of hair snipped from woolly mammoth bodies found frozen in the Siberian permafrost, scientists have obtained a letter by letter code of about four-fifths of the animals' DNA, marking the first time researchers have deciphered the DNA of an extinct species.
The study is a major step forward from the previous technique of trying to extract DNA information from frozen bone marrow, study coauthor Webb Miller told Agence France Presse. That's because DNA found in frozen bone barrow can be badly damaged by environmental conditions, but the keratin sheath of hair that had been trapped in permafrost provides good protection.
Based on the results of the study, published Thursday in Nature, researchers should someday be able to recreate any animal that lived within the last 100,000 years, Penn State University professor and study coauthor Stephan Schuster told the Associated Press.
"It could be done. The question is, just because we might be able to do it one day, should we do it?" Schuster said. "I would be surprised to see if it would take more than 10 or 20 years to do it."
The news of the DNA mapping prompted widespread comparisons to the novel and movie Jurassic Park, however Schuster's parameters would rule out the recreation of dinosaurs because they roamed the earth 140 to 200 million years ago.
The woolly mammoth became extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago.
The woolly mammoth DNA code could be used to recreate the animal by creating a mammoth embryo and implanting it into an elephant, a cousin of the woolly mammoth. The process would be complex, especially because the mammoth DNA is not suitable for cloning.
The researchers discovered that the woolly mammoth and elephants have very similar DNA that differs by just 0.6 percent. That is about half the genetic difference between chimps and humans, and closer than scientists anticipated.
The genome of the mammoth also turned out to be at least one-third bigger than the scientists anticipated, causing money problems for the researchers. The project was halted without completing the mapping because the $1 million in funding provided for the project has already been exhausted, Schuster told Bloomberg News.
"We hope that this study generates enough excitement to show that the project ought to be brought to a proper end,'' he said. "It's only a matter of money and time.''