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Woolly DNA

October 24, 2007

Woolly mammoths went extinct thousands of years ago. But now their genetic past is being resurrected through new DNA techniques.


When DNA gets hairy. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

It’s not easy reconstructing the genetic code of extinct animals because the DNA found in bones and muscle degrades over time and gets contaminated. Now researchers studying the extinct woolly mammoth have developed a better way of piecing together the past using something the mammoths have plenty of – hair. According to molecular geneticist Stephan Schuster of Penn State University, while ancient bones act like sponges for contaminants, hair shafts seal the DNA inside.

STEPHAN SCHUSTER (Penn State University):
Hair is more like a biological plastic, so all the bacteria and the fungi, they remain on the outside.

Schuster says he and his colleagues hope to find out why the mammoths went extinct by assessing the genetic health of their populations. But he says the technique could also be very useful for analyzing the DNA of human mummies. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.