Researchers report in Friday’s edition of the journal Science, however, that mammoth hair seems to be an excellent source of well-preserved DNA.
“It is important to understand the genetic makeup of an organism before it went extinct,” explained lead researcher Stephan C. Schuster of Penn State University.
They try to the understand relationships between different groups of animals, especially ones that are highly endangered, to learn whether those might face a similar fate, said Schuster, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.
“We want to use this to sequence, (the DNA from) museum specimens … to understand the evolution of species by using museum collections that date back several hundred years,” Schuster said.
Indeed, the technique could be used to measure the DNA from specimens collected by such naturalists as Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Linnaeus.
The DNA collected from the hair is much cleaner and much less damaged than that from other parts of the mammoths, he said, so it is more economic to sequence it.
Schuster explained that keratin, the hard covering of hair, could protect the DNA. Hair also can more easily be cleaned of contaminants such as bacteria.
“When people thought of sequencing DNA from hair, the usual assumption was that the material must come from the hair root, which contains recognizable cells, because the hair shaft appears to be dead,” co-author Webb Miller, also at Penn State, said in a statement.
“However, we now know that a hair shaft consists essentially of DNA encased in a kind of biological plastic,” said biology professor Miller.
Like I said, cool. I look forward to reading about the results.
And since I know you’re thinking about it:
Learning the DNA sequence does not mean that the ancient animal can be cloned or somehow resurrected, Schuster said, adding “this is science fiction.”
Not that that will stop anyone from writing Pliocene Park if there’s a buck to be made off of it, but at least we can all be more skeptical this time around.