Pleistocene Park


Ever since Jurassic Park, the idea of cloning long extinct critters has captured the public imagination. Resurrecting T. Rex remains in the realm of fantasy, but what about Pleistocene megafauna that disappeared in the last 20,000 to 10,000 years?

Last week researchers announced the discovery of a 6-month old frozen baby female mammoth in Siberia. The discovery prompts the New York Times to speculate:

The best hope would be if some of her eggs had been preserved in arrested state, much the way human eggs are stored in the freezers of fertility clinics. Sperm from an elephant could possibly tickle the egg awake from its long hibernation…

The alternative, far more laborious, would be to analyze the sequence of DNA units in the mammoth's genome, make a copy of the DNA, and have it take over an elephant's egg.

Each of those steps has long seemed impossible. But advances in the last few months have made each seem slightly less daunting. Analyzing the DNA sequence is complicated by the fact that ancient DNA, when it can be retrieved at all from fossil bones, is always highly degraded. The genome in every cell breaks down after death into thousands of small fragments of DNA.

But a new kind of DNA decoding machine happens to use such fragments as its starting material. At McMaster University in Canada, Hendrik Poinar and Régis Debruyne plan to use of one the machines, from 454 Life Sciences, to reconstruct a mammoth genome. The remaining obstacle is money. If they had $1 million, they could generate a rough draft of a mammoth genome in about a month, Dr. Debruyne said.

454 Life Sciences was the outfit that sequenced DNA structure co-discoverer James Watson's genome last May. A mammoth genome in a month for just $1 million? Calling Bill Gates, Larry Page, or Sergey Brin.

Whole New York Times article here.