Most of the world’s caverns, rivers and boulders were carved out by glaciers hundreds of thousands of years ago. Massive ice sheets-often 3 kilometers thick-flowed over the earth’s crust, eroding and crushing the land underneath. Animals evolved to deal with the harsh climate, the most famous of which is arguably the woolly mammoth.
This hairy pachyderm roamed the tundra in search of grasses, oblivious to the cold, thanks to a large layer of fat, wool (hence the name) covered in course hair and sebaceous glands that secreted insulating oils through the skin. Eventually though, the ice-age passed and the glaciers melted away, leaving behind only bones as evidence of the animals that once lived in the region.
It is unclear whether hunting, climate change, or disease killed off the animals that flourished during the ice age and this has been the topic of dispute between scientists for decades. Sergey Zimov, Director of the Northeast Science Station, has gone so far as to start a Pleistocene Park in Siberia, to prove his theory that hunting eliminated all wildlife as opposed to a natural disaster being the culprit. Yakutian horses, bison, reindeer and musk ox have been brought into the area. But the biggest surprise is that this park may eventually also be home to a wooly mammoth?!
A frozen mammoth recovered from Siberia has provided researchers at the Pennsylvania State University Genome Project with a genetic sample for recreating the animal’s genome. The result is being compared to the DNA sequence of the closely related African elephant to make sure that everything is order.
The Woolly Mammoth
The project is discussed in detail via press release: “The researchers suspect that the full woolly-mammoth genome is over four-billion DNA bases, which they believe is the size of the modern-day African elephant’s genome. Although their dataset consists of more than four-billion DNA bases, only 3.3 billion of them – a little over the size of the human genome – currently can be assigned to the mammoth genome.
Some of the remaining DNA bases may belong to the mammoth, but others could belong to other organisms, like bacteria and fungi, from the surrounding environment that had contaminated the sample. The team used a draft version of the African elephant’s genome, which currently is being generated by scientists at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, to distinguish those sequences that truly belong to the mammoth from possible contaminants.”
Obviously there are still a few kinks that need working out, but the big news is that a woolly mammoth may eventually get born into the 21st century.
Reintroducing the mammoth species to the world may provide an insight to what causes extinction but not without controversy: The natural process of extinction happens for a reason (and isn’t always caused by the human factor). However, many positive thinkers are wondering if the genome project symbolizes a hope that recently extinct or endangered species may have a chance to survive thanks to the cloning process.
As of right now, the genome project has provided a greater insight to the world of an animal that has fascinated children, adults and scientists since its discovery, and this mammoth task is definitely something to keep an eye on.