Breathing Life into Mammoths

By reconstructing ancient genes, scientists can re-create the proteins they encoded and observe how they behave, thereby gaining insights into the physiology of extinct animals. For instance, resurrection of the red blood cell protein hemoglobin from a woolly mammoth (below) has shown that the temperature-sensitive protein evolved adaptations that enabled it to do its job of delivering oxygen to body tissues in the cold conditions these beasts faced.

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Click on a number to learn about each step in the process of resurrecting mammoth hemoglobin.
Step 1

1. Sequence the gene fragments that encode the hemoglobin protein.

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Step 2

2. Re-create functional mammoth hemoglobin genes by taking the intact corresponding genes in an Asian elephant and altering their sequences in three spots to match the mammoth sequences.

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Step 3

3. Insert the modified genes into E. coli bacteria and trick them into producing mammoth hemoglobin

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Step 4

4. Expose the purified hemoglobin to a chemical environment similar to that inside blood cells

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Step 5

5. Observe how readily mammoth hemoglobin releases oxygen at various physiologically relevant temperatures

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