Mammoth wool gives up genetic secrets
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A new technique has allowed researchers to extract genetic information from the hair shafts of ancient woolly mammoths.
The team behind the breakthrough, based at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, says the method should also work on other well-preserved mammal specimens, the BBC reports.
It is well known to all watchers of CSI, as well as the scientific community, that there is plenty of DNA to be found in the root of a hair. But the shaft was not thought to be a good source, until now.
Knowing this, the team decided to crunch up lots of hair from each of their specimen mammoths on the off-chance it would work. "Basically, for every mammoth we tried, it worked. That blew us away," said Dr Tom Gilbert.
Rather than bog standard DNA, the team reconstructed sequences of mitochondrial DNA. Previously, only two mitochrondrial genomes have been published. The team from Copenhagen has included 10 in the Science paper.
The key to the DNA's preservation lies in the structure of the hair shaft. Gilbert told the BBC: "The reason we think hair is so great comes down to the fact that as a structure, hair is made out of this material called keratin. It's a kind of protein that in a very simplistic sense can be viewed as a plastic that the DNA gets embedded in and surrounded by and protected by."
The team says the technique will be invaluable to researchers wanting to find out more about many specimens - other woolly mammals, like Rhinos, and even ancient humans, held in the vaults of the world's museums. ®
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