Scientists at Penn State are leaders of a team that is the first to report the genome-wide sequence of an extinct animal, according to Webb Miller, professor of biology and of computer science and engineering and one of the project's two leaders. The scientists sequenced the genome of the woolly mammoth, an extinct species of elephant that was adapted to living in the cold environment of the northern hemisphere. They sequenced four billion DNA bases using next-generation DNA-sequencing instruments and a novel approach that reads ancient DNA highly efficiently.
"Previous studies on extinct organisms have generated only small amounts of data," said Stephan C. Schuster, Penn State professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and the project's other leader. "Our dataset is 100 times more extensive than any other published dataset for an extinct species, demonstrating that ancient DNA studies can be brought up to the same level as modern genome projects."
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.
Of course you know where this leads: Recreation of living breathing woolly mammoths wandering around the cooler parts of United States and Canada.
What I'd most like to see in terms of species recovery: recreation of Neanderthals from sequenced Neanderthal genome samples.
Update: Nicholas Wade of the New York Times reports that scientists are already considering ways to bring back the woolly mammoth.
Scientists are talking for the first time about the old idea of resurrecting extinct species as if this staple of science fiction is a realistic possibility, saying that a living mammoth could perhaps be regenerated for as little as $10 million.
The same technology could be applied to any other extinct species from which one can obtain hair, horn, hooves, fur or feathers, and which went extinct within the last 60,000 years, the effective age limit for DNA.
How? Take all the genetic differences between elephants and woolly mammoth and start doing genetic engineering to elephant embryos to introduce woolly mammoth genetic segments. Maybe a few generations of elephant-woolly mammoth hybrids would be required to do the complete transformation. This is doable for an affordable price of about $12 million. Lots of millionaires and billionaires could afford to do this. Even if that is a lowball cost estimate of course the price will fall. 20 years from now this sort of genetic engineering will be incredibly cheap.
The coming of incredibly cheap genetic engineering will usher in an era of genetically engineered pets. Want a super smart dog that is incredibly loyal, obedient, beautiful, and very long lived? This will become affordable first for very wealthy people and then later for the middle class.