DNA from a long-dead woolly mammoth was successfully spliced into the gene sequence of an Asian elephant, Harvard researchers have announced. This means that the majestic mammal, which saw its golden age around 40,000 years ago, may walk the Earth again one day -- but probably not anytime soon, according to the scientists.
While woolly mammoths hung on in small populations until about 4,000 years ago, the species had mostly died out 10,000 years into history.
The research team led by Harvard University geneticist George Church employed an ultra-high-tech gene splicing tool to extract DNA from a frozen woolly mammoth body and splice it into the cells of an Asian elephant.
The scientists focused on genes for the woolly mammoth's smaller ears, its shaggy hair and its body fat. So far, the ancient DNA is working just fine in its new host, though no official research paper with the results of the astonishing study has yet been published.
"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."
Church also cautions that the purpose of the experiment is not to produce cloned woolly mammoths who would then roam the Earth like creatures out of the Jurassic Park film series.
"Just making a DNA change isn't that meaningful," Church said in an interview. "We want to read out the phenotypes."
In other words, scientists need to see how well the genes work in their new hosts. For example, will they actually cause present-day elephants to grow mammoth-like hair? And if so, what color will that hair be?
But other biologists say that bringing back extinct species — a process known, logically enough, as "de-extinction" — could help restore environmental imbalances caused by human intervention.
"All the plant species survived on the backs of these animals," said McMaster University evolutionary biologist Hendrik Poinar "If we brought the mammoth back to Siberia, maybe that would be good for the ecosystems that are changing because of climate change."
Church did add that attempts to clone the long-dead woolly mammoth could happen as soon as three years from now.
But there are also biologists who question the whole project of resurrecting long-dead species.
"We face the potential extinction of African and Asian elephants," Professor Alex Greenwood told Britan's Mirror newspaper. "Why bring back another elephantid from extinction when we cannot even keep the ones that are not extinct around?"
The researchers found the DNA in preserved woolly mammoth specimens discovered frozen in Alaska and Siberia.
[Image: Wikimedia Commons]