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Scientists' Use of Woolly Mammoth DNA May Unlock Evolution of Elephant

An international team of scientists has unlocked the genetic blueprint of hair samples from ancient woolly mammoths found in Siberia. VOA's Jessica Berman reports the researchers say the DNA will give them valuable information about the evolution of elephants and possibly other prehistoric animals.

Scientists mapped the DNA sequence of 13 hair shafts from Siberian woolly mammoths.

The mammoths roamed the earth 30,000 to 60,000 years ago and are the common, prehistoric ancestor of the African and Indian elephants.

Most of the hair in the study was obtained from one frozen mammoth found in 1799 in the permafrost near Siberia.

For the past 200 years, the hair remains were stored at room temperature at the Zoological Museum in St. Petersburg.

Stephan Schuster is with the Center for Comparative Genomics at Pennsylvania State University.

Schuster, who is part of the international team that sequenced the genetic material taken from the hair samples, says no one thought it was possible to derive usable DNA.

"All of us would have predicted that just the fact that ... it was not kept frozen or at least refrigerated would have destroyed every remaining DNA that was in that bone or in that hair," explains Schuster. "But in our study we can show, no, this old one worked, not only worked, but in this smallest amount of hair that we had."

Schuster says it is possible to obtain DNA from dinosaur bones. That is how paleontologists know as much as they do about the age of the creatures and their evolutionary history.

But he says DNA analysis of dinosaur bones is expensive and difficult. Schuster says bones are porous, and it is difficult to separate bacteria, plant and animal debris from the fossils scientists want to analyze.

DNA analysis of hair, on the other hand, is quite simple and relatively inexpensive, according to Schuster.

"It is kind of like a biological plastic," he said. "And the contaminating bacteria and fungi is sitting on the outside of the hair. And so, we can bleach, like in the laundry machine, we can bleach the outside of the hair, and the DNA on the inside stays intact. And so after we remove the contaminating bacteria, we then dissolve the bacteria from the hair and then isolate very pure mammoth DNA from it."

Schuster says the hair analysis can be performed on samples as small as a single strand. And he says researchers found usable DNA along the entire hair shaft, not just the hair root closest to the mammoth's skin.

Schuster expects the finding will tell researchers a lot about the evolution of elephants.

"This gives you a very good time for determining the time that the living elephant, the Indian elephant and the African elephant, how long it took them before they separated and the last common ancestor of the two," he said.

The study describing DNA analysis of woolly mammoth hair is published in the journal Science.