New study resurrects woolly mammoth DNA to explore cause of extinction

Woolly Mammoths

Woolly Mammoths

The vast majority of woolly mammoths went extinct at the end of the last ice age, but small, isolated populations managed to hold out for a little while longer.

The researchers identified a number of genetic mutations unique to the Wrangel Island mammoth.

Woolly mammoths went extinct more than 4,000 years ago, but a new study suggests that the last of the creatures died a disgusting and isolated death. The final of that period let the raise of the Holocene Age, where many species of animals found their end.

"The 2017 study predicts that Wrangel Island mammoths were accumulating damaging mutations". The creatures found their end nearly 5,000 years ago, and the cause of their death was unknown.

Lynch and his colleagues identified detrimental mutations by comparing the genome of the Wrangel Island mammoths to their living relatives - three Asian elephants (Elephas maximus).

By analyzing the genome, the researchers revealed the mammoths had issues with neurological development, male fertility issues, insulin signaling and an impacted ability to smell, which could have severely impacted their diet.

With a population of just a few hundred, generations of inbreeding between related individuals triggered harmful mutations. This change caused the extinction of many species, including cave bears, cave hyenas, the woolly rhinoceros, and the continental population of woolly mammoths.

Mammoths once enjoyed a widespread range across the world but, as climate warmed 10,000 years ago, they were forced back to several pockets including this lonely island and St Paul island in the Bering Sea.

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Following this discovery, they synthesized those genes in the lab to further test their functionality. The end of that period marked the beginning of the Holocene period, where there was nearly total loss of cold and dry steppe tundra that contributed to the extinction of many species like cave bears, woolly rhinocerous, woolly hyenas and the continental woolly mammoths. This paper takes those suggestions and tests them in mice.

"The key innovation of our paper is that we actually resurrect Wrangel Island mammoth genes to test whether their mutations actually were damaging (most mutations don't actually do anything),"said evolutionary biologist Vincent Lynch of the University at Buffalo".

"We found that mutations changed the function of mammoth genes in ways that likely caused disease", said Lynch.

Prior to that research, scientists had conducted complete genome sequencing on Wrangel Island woolly mammoths along with earlier, more healthy mammoth populations.

Authors of the new study suggest the latest findings complement the results of a 2017 study that showed gene mutations impacted the olfactory receptors of Wrangel Island mammoth, as well as their ability to produce of certain urinary proteins - mutations that may have impacted mammoths' social status and mate choice.

This drastic decline of numbers decreased genetic diversity, which meant that the animals were inbreeding to a higher degree, and less capable of purging bad mutations. "Wrangel Island mammoths were unable to smell the flowers that they ate".

In terms of how this impaired smelling ability might have affected the mutated mammoth, Lynch said it "could smell things, just not floral scents", adding that it's "also remarkable given just how important smell is to elephants - they have thousands of genes for detecting various odours, which is way more than other mammals".

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