Antifreeze Animals

May 5, 2010

Brit Trogen

All around the world, animals must cope with the cruel whims of Mother Nature. Hurricane season; tornadoes; two feet of snow in the middle of May. You name it, she's done it. And any organism that wants to make to the next season has got to learn to adapt.


For the modern human, this adaptation might consist of nothing more than turning up the thermostat. But it looks like the woolly mammoth has us all beat when it comes to cold weather chops. New research unveiled by a team from the University of Adelaide has revealed that these great beasts, like some species of frog, had an antifreeze system built into their blood.  


Mammoths roamed the earth about 43,000 years ago, and had many adaptations to help them deal with the cold, including a thick fur coat (hence the "woolly" epithet), and small ears relative to their elephant ancestors. But they also had this added genetic advantage: hemoglobin that unloads oxygen more readily at cold temperatures, allowing more efficient release in the limbs in sub-zero temperatures. So Snuffleupagus could chill out in the ice for, well, ages and never have to worry about losing a leg to frostbite.


To unearth this ancient mammoth blood sample, the researchers essentially had to travel back in time using molecular biology. They isolated the mammoth hemoglobin DNA, converted it to RNA, and expressed the sequence in E. coli bacteria, which then produced the protein exactly as it would have existed in the original mammoth. People often ask why Jurassic couldn't happen in real life, but the important difference here is time. While DNA can survive for 50,000 or even 100,000 years, over millions of years it degrades to a point that it becomes completely unusable. Of course, the dinos that lived with us 4,000 years ago would all be fair game.


This finding is a huge step in the study of a long dead species. And while reconstructing the mammoth genetic code was time-consuming, it raises the possibility that we may someday be able to learn more about the life history and physiology of extinct creatures using their DNA.


So what's next? Raise your hand if you want a Snuffleupagus.



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