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Sorting Through a Mammoth's Genes

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Sorting Through a Mammoth's Genes


Sorting Through a Mammoth's Genes

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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We're going to turn now from new DNA to old DNA; actually, old enough to be coming from back to the Ice Age. Two papers published this week take a look at the genetic makeup of the woolly mammoth--you've seen that, right, in the museums, the woolly mammoth standing there?--one published in the journal Nature, the other in the journal Science, and the two groups take different approaches to the genetic material of this Ice Age mammal.

And joining me now is Ross MacPhee. He's curator in the Division of Vertebrate Zoology and Mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York, and one of the authors of the Science paper.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. ROSS MacPHEE (American Museum of Natural History): Hi, Ira. Thanks.

FLATOW: You've found that the woolly mammoth shares 98 percent of its DNA with African elephants?

Mr. MacPHEE: Well, even that figure is probably a little low.

FLATOW: Really?

Mr. MacPHEE: The estimate that we published had to do with the comparisons to the African elephant, the whole genome of which is publicly available. There are problems with ancient DNA that come under the general heading of damage, and it's possible we would have had alignments going up to 99 percent or even a little bit better, which is actually what you expect. They're very closely related animals.

FLATOW: But even yet, you know, when we talk about chimpanzees and humans, they're over 98 percent alike, but that 2 percent really makes a big difference.

Mr. MacPHEE: Doesn't it, though?

FLATOW: Yeah. Would that be the same thing here?

Mr. MacPHEE: Yes, undoubtedly. The Leipzig group, the Max Planck group that published the mitochondrial genome of mammoths, came up with the finding, which I don't think anyone in my community would doubt, which is that the Asian elephant and the mammoth are each other's closest known relatives, and a little bit more distant is the African elephant, or the two species of African elephant. But there's no question that, overall, these three elephants--they're all elephants--are extremely similar to one another.

FLATOW: Interesting. How did you dig out the DNA? Did it come out of the fossils or the remains--actually, it wouldn't be fossilized at this point, would it?

Mr. MacPHEE: Well, in our case, the paper that we published was really not about relationships. It was instead to show how you could use some new technology, called a genome sequencer, in order to generate literally millions and millions of base pairs, which is sort of our currency for comparison. And not only did we get mitochondrial DNA, but we also got lots of nuclear DNA, and that's really--if there is a single breakthrough to talk about here, it's the fact that we can get so much information now from material that is literally tens of thousands of years old. This is unprecedented.

FLATOW: Wow. Well, but, you know, the next question we'll ask is, if you're getting this nuclear DNA out of a woolly mammoth dug up out of the frozen tundra, can you clone one, make a new one?

Mr. MacPHEE: I knew you'd ask that.

FLATOW: If I didn't ask it, I'd have to be fired, so, you know...

Mr. MacPHEE: Well, I feel pretty strongly that it's a very bad idea to think in terms of cloning the mammoth. That's the phrase we use, although, actually, even if it were possible, we would probably not be cloning a single individual. Instead, what we probably can do in future would be to create hybrids. This would be a question of, first of all, determining for something like three billion base pairs how the Asian elephant and the woolly mammoth differ. Then we'd have to construct genes to inject into a germ line of a living elephant, and then at the end of the day, what would we have? We would have a single individual, nice little furry pup, with nobody else to go with, to be with. And it's a problem that is almost exactly parallel to the issue faced by Frankenstein's monster.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. MacPHEE: When the good doctor created him, he wasn't thinking in terms of what the monster was most interested in, which, of course, was love. So in that particular case, he had to get the doctor to agree to create a female for him so that the line could continue, whether you think that's a good thing or a bad thing. But we would have to do something parallel. Just ethically, I think, we would have to do something parallel.


Mr. MacPHEE: If you're going to start on this road, then you have to follow it to the end.

FLATOW: So no one--and you don't think anybody should start on this road, then.

Mr. MacPHEE: I think it would cost millions of dollars. Nobody's thinking in terms of what do you do with the newly re-created mammoths. Where are they going to live? Who's going to take care of them? What's our stewardship responsibilities? Right now we're talking about reintroducing lions and cheetahs and whatnot from Africa and other places into North America because their relatives existed back in the Pleistocene. That's fine, but once you've got the `Pleistocene Park,' as it were, back again, who's going to take care of these animals?

FLATOW: Yeah, you just...

Mr. MacPHEE: There's going to be a lot fewer poodles and cats, I can tell you, if it ever happens.

FLATOW: Yeah. And you just don't want to put them in a zoo. That wouldn't be the right thing.

Mr. MacPHEE: No, not according to my lights.

FLATOW: OK. Ross MacPhee, I want to thank you very much for taking time to talk with us.

Mr. MacPHEE: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: And good luck and congratulations to you on your genetics work there.

Mr. MacPHEE: Thanks.

FLATOW: Ross MacPhee is the curator in the Division of Vertebrate Zoology and Mammalogy right here in New York at the American Museum of Natural History.

We're going to take a short break and come back and talk with Robert Kurzweil. He's always interesting to talk to, and--I'm sorry, Ray Kurzweil. I've got Robert on the mind. We'll--sorry. Sorry, Ray. We'll be right back after this short break, and he can berate me right on the air for this mistake. We'll take your calls and talk to him--we'll talk with him about his new book, which is called "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology." Stay with us. We'll be right back.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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