Woolly mammoth DNA offers extinction clues

Canadian and U.S. researchers have mapped the nuclear DNA from a woolly mammoth preserved in the Siberian permafrost. They warn of ethical concerns of bringing such animals back to life, hope to use findings to prevent extinctions.

Mapping the DNA of a woolly mammoth means a Jurassic Park-like resurrection of an extinct species could theoretically happen, say a group of Canadian and American researchers.

The scientists hit a DNA motherlode deep in the Siberian permafrost this summer when they found a 28,000-year-old jawbone of a woolly mammoth that contained nuclear DNA.

"It's a tool of tremendous magnitude for paleontologists," said Hendrik Poinar, an anthropologist at Hamilton's McMaster University, who led the team that recovered the specimen. "It's a time machine to travel to the past."

Using a state-of-the-art sequencing machine at Penn State University, the researchers should have a complete genome of the Ice Age mammal in about a year, a first for an extinct mammal.

"It's a wonderful thing to think... that we can reach back in time with modern techniques and gain some information about an extinct animal that we never thought we'd be able to," said Ross McPhee, vertebrate zoology curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The first results are being published this week in the journal, Science.

A second study by researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany reports mitochondrial DNA from outside the nucleus shows woolly mammoths are more closely related to the Asian than the African elephant.

For researchers, the sample offers a roadmap of evolution. It's a chance to determine why the woolly mammoth died while the Asian elephant, is alive and thriving.

The findings also mean its theoretically possible to recreate extinct species such as the fabled sabre-toothed tiger, the bear drawn on caves by early humans during the Ice Age and even Neanderthal man.

"And possibly, we will have a Jurassic Park, but it will be a fraudulent kind of park because they won't be living in their contexts," McPhee cautioned. "Ecologically, it will make no sense, and economically, other than thrill value, it makes no sense. So I'm very much against it."

As for recreating dinosaurs, scientists don't expect to find any frozen tissue.