Kiwi helps to resurrect woolly mammoth blood

23:16, May 04 2010
Alan Cooper
GIANT STUDY: Alan Cooper is extracting DNA from mammoth bones found in Siberia.

Thousands of years after woolly mammoths roamed Siberia, a Wellington man has helped scientists take the first step in bringing the creatures back to life.

In a Jurassic Park-style experiment, scientists from around the world announced this week that they have recreated the primary component of mammoth blood.

Wellingtonian Alan Cooper, now director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, said the breakthrough came seven years after he was first approached with the idea by a scientist based in Canada. "At the time I thought, `What a great idea' – but it's never going to work."

Woolly mammoths are believed to have died out thousands of years ago because of climate change, but Professor Cooper said scientists were able to recreate their blood by using ancient DNA preserved in bones between 25,000 and 43,000 years old.

The bones were found in Siberia, and studies on the blood revealed special evolutionary adaptations that allowed the mammoth to survive in harsh Arctic conditions.

The team believed a similar technique could be used to help reconstruct the blood of other extinct animals, such as moa.

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However, Prof Cooper said there was a "big gap" between building one component of an animal's blood and seeing woolly mammoths roam the Earth again.

"One protein out of tens of thousands does not make an animal."

In addition to the prohibitive cost and the scientific challenges, he said there was no reason to try and reconstruct a woolly mammoth – as much could be learnt from resurrecting DNA sequences of extinct species instead.

The team had already learnt from working with mammoth bones how the animals had tolerated cold.

Prof Cooper worked with Professor Kevin Campbell of Manitoba University on the project, who contacted him with the idea of trying to resurrect mammoth blood.

Prof Campbell said the team had managed to uncover physical attributes of an animal that had not existed for thousands of years. "The resulting haemoglobin molecules are no different than `going back in time' and taking blood samples from a real mammoth.

The technique used by the team had opened up a new field of biology for scientists researching extinct animals.

The Dominion Post