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Wooly mammoth DNA successfully spliced into elephant genome

Now, scientists must coax the hybrid cells into various types of tissues to see if the new genes are properly expressed.

By Brooks Hays
Wooly mammoth DNA successfully spliced into elephant genome
Baby mammoth Yuka goes on display in Russia. Photo by Russian Geographical Society/Administration of Primorsk Krai

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 25 (UPI) -- Researchers at Harvard University are one step closer to bringing the wooly mammoth back to life, having successfully inserted wooly mammoth genes into living cells collected from an Asian elephant.

For the first time in a long time (the species became extinct 4,000 years ago), the genes of a wooly mammoth are active -- reborn inside Asian elephant skin cells floating about petri dishes in the lab of lead researcher George Church.

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Not all of the mammoth's genetic code was spliced into the elephant genome. In fact, only 14 genes were inserted -- ones most representative of the hairy, cold-enduring traits of the modern elephant's ancient relative. The genes were spliced into elephant skins cells using a technique called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat).

Church and his assistants specifically selected the 14 spliced genes -- sourced from the skin cells of a frozen wooly mammoth carcass -- for their uniqueness to the wooly mammoth's hardy appearance.

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"We prioritized genes associated with cold resistance, including hairiness, ear size, subcutaneous fat and, especially, hemoglobin," Church told The Sunday Times.

But choosing the correct genes isn't an exact science. Now, they must coax the cells into various types of tissues to see if the new genes are properly expressed.

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"Just making a DNA change isn't that meaningful," Church told Popular Science. "We want to read out the phenotypes."

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If the genes do as they're supposed to -- instigate the growth of long hair and encourage the accumulation of subcutaneous fat, for example -- then the research team will attempt to convert the cells into an embryo that can be raised in an artificial womb.

With the latest development, the reality of a modern day wooly mammoth seems slightly more plausible. But with so many ifs, the reality remains a long way off.

"We have not published it in a scientific journal because there is more work to do, but we plan to do so," Church said.

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A team of researchers in South Korea are also trying to clone a wooly mammoth.

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