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The recent discovery of a baby mammoth remarkably well preserved for 10,000 years in Siberian permafrost has put the spotlight on research by Old Dominion University biologist Alex Greenwood. The professor's comments about the discovery were featured in an article Sunday, July 15, in The New York Times.

Some scientists have raised the possibility that mammoths, which have long been extinct, might be resurrected if viable eggs or DNA can be retrieved from the baby female mammoth-which was about six months old when it died on Siberia's Yamal peninsula. As the resurrection scenarios go, elephant sperm might awaken a mammoth egg, or a copy of mammoth DNA might take charge of an elephant egg.

But Greenwood, an expert in mammoth DNA, told The New York Times that the well-preserved state of the baby mammoth specimen by no means guarantees that organs are intact or that eggs have been preserved in an arrested state. He said the chance was "remote" that viable eggs can be retrieved.

"The chances of resurrecting a mammoth from the Yamal specimen are next to nothing," Greenwood added in an interview. "Although well preserved, it is certain that the unavoidable process of degradation was well underway before it was found."

The Times article says that new technologies and scientific discoveries make it more likely that that the mammoth DNA sequence will be copied. It says that this achievement, though not possible today, is "at least worth thinking about."

Greenwood, who joined the ODU faculty in 2006, received his doctorate in human genetics from the University of Michigan and has served as a postdoctoral research fellow and research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. He also did environment and health research as a postdoctoral fellow in Munich, Germany.

He received a grant from the Jeffress Memorial Trust this spring to continue his studies of mammoth population genetics. He likes to call the work "CSI: Ice Age." He also has a genetics project underway to look at why mammoths had long hair and elephants do not.

An article in Science magazine in 2000 described Greenwood's research in paleovirology, which might someday explain animal extinctions and unlock secrets of ancient viruses to the benefit of modern medicine.

Greenwood said in the interview that the newfound baby mammoth may yield enough genetic information to identify 10,000-year-old microbes, including pathogens, and that findings such as these would be valuable to his research at this time. "It is all fascinating stuff from such a unique specimen," he said.

This article was posted on: July 17, 2007

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