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Published: Friday, 5/7/2010

Mammoth effort

WOOLLY mammoths haven't been around for thousands of years, although well-preserved remains continue to turn up in the Arctic and in fields of Siberian permafrost.

The long-tusked relatives of the modern elephant still excite our collective imaginations because - unlike dinosaurs - our paths crossed in the not-so-distant past.

As the Ice Age wiped out the vegetation mammoths depended on for food, early humans may have hunted the 11-foot-tall, 6-to-8-ton creature to extinction, according to a widely held theory.

The idea of cloning woolly mammoths has been a staple of science fiction for decades. Still, scientists - including Chien Ho, a professor of biological science at Carnegie Mellon University - are more interested in how the once-tropical creatures coped with the cold that gripped much of the Earth during the Ice Age than in creating a new mammoth from DNA in a laboratory.

Mr. Ho was part of a team of researchers who helped recreate woolly mammoth hemoglobin - blood protein - to understand better the genetics of how the creature operated.

Hemoglobin carries oxygen from the lungs to the body's tissues. Because mammoths weren't native to colder regions, scientists have been baffled by their ability to adapt and keep warm internally despite their cold extremities.

Mr. Ho applied his expertise in hemoglobin to a masterful international effort in which scientists used extracts from ancient-mammoth DNA and sequenced it with the DNA of a contemporary Asian elephant. It was an elegant way of exploring a theory proposed a decade ago by Kevin Campbell of the University of Manitoba - that, with mammoth DNA, scientists might be able to reconstruct mammoth blood.

Thanks to their groundbreaking research, we now have a better idea of how woolly mammoths conserved their internal heat even in brutally cold environments.

Mr. Ho's hemoglobin research not only reconstructed a long-dead mammoth's blood, but also will benefit research into the creation of human blood substitutes.

With real science like this, who needs Jurassic Park?



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