Bringing the woolly mammoth back to life and seeing it roam the earth again may sound too “Jurassic Park” to be true. But for many scientists, it’s not a matter of if, but when.
The first step has already been taken.
Geneticist Prof Stephan Schuster earned international repute when he co-led the Mammoth Genome Project team at Pennsylvania State University, successfully piecing together 85 per cent of the mammoth’s DNA sequence in 2008 using clumps of hair from the remains of several of the giant critters.
It is more than just about resurrecting Ice Age creatures. Having learnt that the mammoths became less genetically diverse before eventually dying off, Prof Schuster said this meant endangered species today could be helped by using gene testing to identify good matches for breeding in order to preserve the species’ genetic diversity.
Prof Schuster’s achievement in deciphering the DNA of the mammoths was recognised as one of the “Top 10 Scientific Discoveries” of 2008 by Time magazine. It also earned him a place in Time’s list of the “100 Most Influential People” in 2009.
Prof Schuster, who pioneered the application of next-generation sequencing to a wide spectrum of topics in biology including microbial genomics, evolutionary genomics, and metagenomics, has joined the Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE).
NTU is leading the development of the SCELSE, a key national research endeavour that aims to harness micro-organisms to solve various water and environmental issues. The centre, identified as Singapore’s fifth Research Centre of Excellence by the National Research Foundation and the Ministry of Education, has won S$120 million in government grants.
The Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State University is one of the three cluster leaders at SCELSE, where he will leverage the expertise and resources at the Schuster Lab to unearth new findings in the areas of genomics, bioinformatics, and advanced sequencing technologies.
Prof Schuster feels it is possible to open a window to the past by studying animals that are long gone at the same level of genetic detail as when examining living species today. The lessons being learnt from studying extinct species can help us to understand the processes that are driving endangered species towards possible extinction.