A hairy relative of elephants

Woolly mammoths were a species of elephant that populated much of Eurasia and North America until about 10,000 years ago. Along with their living relatives, the African and Indian elephant species, mammoths originated in Africa millions of years ago. Within the last several hundred thousand years, mammoths adapted to the numerous ice age periods in the northern hemisphere by evolving several traits that are specific to woolly mammoths. These traits include the shape and size of their bodies, the thick hair coat, the enormous tusks, and a 2-inch layer of insulating fat tissue.

Lessons from the mammoth genome

The Mammoth Genome Project discussed here is the first to decipher the genome of an extinct animal. Our data allow a view back in time as far as 60,000 years and describe the genetic changes that occurred in mammoths. Our analyses show that the rate of evolution within the three lineages of elephants (mammoth, Indian elephant and African elephant) since they separated about 6 million years ago is only half of that between humans and chimpanzees. Our study also identified changes in proteins that occurred only in mammoths, but not in any of the other 50 mammalian genomes sequenced so far. Since proteins are a main contributor to an animal's physical traits, it is possible that these differences helped mammoths to survive in their harsh environment.

Biology of extinction

The broader implications of our research involve studying genomes of extinct animals and asking specific questions about their life styles. In general, our work shows that it is possible to open a window to the past and study animals that are long gone at the same level of genetic detail as when examining modern species. The lessons being learned from studying extinct species can help us to understand the processes that are driving today's endangered species toward possible extinction.

The Center for Comparative Genomics and Bioinformatics

The Mammoth Genome Project is being conducted at the Center for Comparative Genomics and Bioinformatics at the Pennsylvania State University. The team has already completed a first phase of the project, where the genome was read at single-fold coverage. We are currently working on a high-resolution sequence of the genome, which has more than 4 billion base pairs.

This web site contains information about the on-going Mammoth Genome Project.

Quick Links
Mammoths and human society
Sequence reads in the NCBI Short Read Archive
Woolly mammoth on Google News
Mammoth discovery sites
Some of our related publications