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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mammoth Hair Lends New DNA Insight

WASHINGTON -- Attacking several tons of woolly mammoth with stone-tipped spears must have taken extraordinary courage, and ancient people left paintings to prove they did it.

Now, scientists are approaching mammoths in a different way by extracting DNA from their dense coats in an effort to learn more about them.

Mammoths are extinct, of course. No one knows whether the cause was climate change, hungry Neanderthals or something else, but as they disappeared they left remains, often frozen in the tundra.

Attempts have been made to sequence their DNA from frozen animals, but that can be complicated by contamination.

Researchers reported in Friday's edition of the journal Science, however, that mammoth hair seems to be an excellent source of well-preserved DNA.

"It is important to understand the genetic makeup of an organism before it went extinct," explained lead researcher Stephan Schuster of the Pennsylvania State University.

The researchers try to understand the relationship among different groups of animals, especially ones that are highly endangered, to learn whether those might face a similar fate, said Schuster, a biochemist and molecular biologist.

"We want to use this to sequence [the DNA from] museum specimens and therefore help to understand the evolution of species by using museum collections that date back several hundred years," Schuster said.

Indeed, the technique could be used to measure the DNA from specimens collected by such naturalists as Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Linnaeus.

DNA collected from the hair is much cleaner and much less damaged than that from other parts of mammoths, Schuster said, so it is more economical to sequence it.

Several of the hair samples investigated were up to 50,000 years old. One of the samples came from the first specimen ever recorded, the so-called Adams mammoth, found in 1799 and dug out of the permafrost between 1804 and 1806.