Mammoth DNA in recovered cells frozen for thousands of years is likely too fragmented to clone an animal, according to Harvard geneticist George Church. So he’s working instead to engineer one genetically from a close relative, the Asian elephant.

Genetic studies have shown that the Asian elephant is more closely related to the extinct mammoth than to its closest living relative, the African elephant. That provides scientists with the basic stock to build a mammoth, said Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School.

Prof George Church605“The Asian elephant and the mammoth are really close, closer than the African elephant,” Church said during a lecture yesterday. “We’re assuming that the Asian elephant is basically right, a mutant [mammoth] that has a problem living at minus 50 C.”

Church acknowledged there are important differences between the two animals and said current efforts are aimed at one key contrast: cold tolerance. Increasing that in Asian elephants would mean changing several traits, such as adding a double fur coat and a thick layer of fat to keep out the cold, and reducing ear size to cut heat loss. Church said researchers are testing possible changes in lab cultures and are still several years from trying them out in an elephant.

Church’s mammoth work is part of a kaleidoscope of research efforts fueled by genetic engineering, he said. While health and medical goals are driving down the price of genome analysis and fostering the development of new technology, some of the most far-reaching applications — like resurrecting the mammoth and other extinct creatures — lie outside human health.

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