For the first time in over 3,000 years, the functional components of wooly mammoth DNA have been brought to life (albeit in a petri dish). The achievement represents an important step towards potential efforts to bring the extinct species back.
The experiment was performed by accomplished geneticist George Church of Harvard University. To do it, his team analyzed the DNA extracted from the well-preserved remains of mammoths found on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, where the species is thought to have made its last stand some 3,300 years ago. The Harvard researchers weren't able to reconstruct the DNA in its entirety, but they were able to recreate, or synthesize, a functional version of it in the lab. Mammoths are closely related to Asian elephants, so a complete cell did not have to be created from scratch.
"We prioritized genes associated with cold resistance including hairiness, ear size, subcutaneous fat and, especially hemoglobin," Church told The Sunday Times. "We now have functioning elephant cells with mammoth DNA in them. We have not published it in a scientific journal because there is more work to do, but we plan to do so."
To insert the reconstituted mammoth DNA into the elephant genome, Church's team used a gene editing technique called CRISPR/Cas9. It's the same cut-and-paste tool that's allowing scientists to create transgenic organisms, i.e. animals who cells have been implanted with the DNA from another species.