Molecules in Mammoths: Revolutions in Paleontology and Resurrections of the Past

By Elizabeth Dobson Jones

In the summer of 1977, a baby mammoth was unearthed for the first time in thousands of years. Preserved in permafrost, it was a reminder of the distant past, having lived and died approximately 40,000 years ago. In the spring of 1978, bits and pieces of the carcass were selected, sampled, packed in dry ice, and shipped across the world from the USSR to the USA. Allan Wilson – a professor of biochemistry at the University of California, Berkeley – waited for the special shipment. At the time, Wilson was one of the first (and few) researchers to use molecular data in the reconstruction of evolutionary history.

The baby mammoth, designated Dima, was an exceptional fossil find for two reasons. First, it was the most complete mammoth discovered since the 1800s. Second, it was the only complete mammoth to be excavated from the earth and refrigerated in a lab. Wilson was especially interested in this specimen for the latter reason. Since the 1960s, Wilson had tested and demonstrated the power of molecular evidence from modern organisms to understand evolutionary change. Wilson and his lab thought to extend their work to ancient organisms, as well. Subjected to cold conditions in both the permafrost and freezer, Dima presented an extraordinary opportunity for research in the unexplored areas of immunological, chemical, and molecular research of fossils.

From the beginning, the recovery of molecules from mammoths was of interest to science, media, and the public. The New York Times reported the baby mammoth discovery and its delivery to the Wilson Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. Reporter Walter Sullivan explained that the primary point of the study was to investigate the preservation of proteins – as well as nucleic acids – with the hope it would help elucidate the relationship between the extinct mammoth and extant elephant. At the same time, Sullivan flirted with the idea of bringing back the mammoth. He stated that while the possibility to “clone” a mammoth seems “improbable” it is not “impossible” (Sullivan, 1978). The search for molecules in fossils was a way to both rediscover the past and to resurrect it. 

The excavation of Dima and its transportation from the permafrost of Russia to a lab in California for molecular research is one example of a conceptual and technological “revolution” in the study of fossils. It was just one in a series of steps that contributed to the birth of a novel and controversial approach to studying the past. It was one step forward in the “revolution” in paleontology called “molecular paleontology.” Instead of prepping and preserving fossils for museum display, scientists slowly but surely shifted their attention to the information that could be gleaned from the inside and outside of fossils. The idea was that molecules could be fossils too.

However, the changing meaning of fossils is not new. As historian Martin Rudwick observed, “The ‘meaning’ of fossils has been seen in many different ways in different periods” (Rudwick, 1972, 266). For thousands of years, humans have speculated over the remains of creatures long-lost. Dinosaurs are a case in point. Over the past hundreds of years, humans struggled to understand the presence of those fossils in light of the absence of the existence of dinosaurs today. Eventually, natural philosophers – later known as scientists – came to realize the processes of evolution and extinction. How researchers see and study fossils has changed and continues to change over time. The recent revolution of molecular paleontology has afforded fossils with a new meaning and new role in the molecular age.

Three life-size sculptures of dinosaurs.
The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs in London (Left to right: Hylaeosaurus, Iguanodon, and Megalosaurus). These structures were constructed in the mid-1800s by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. These dinosaurs were designed based on a small and select numbers of fossils. While these dinosaurs are inaccurate by scientific standards today, the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs represent the changing meaning of fossils.

Molecular paleontology includes the investigation of lipids and amino acids to proteins and nucleic acids (like DNA and RNA) from fossil material. Of these, DNA is the flagship of the fleet. The prospect of ancient DNA in extinct mammoths, dinosaurs, and Neanderthals has captured the imagination of the public and has been popularized in the press. The area of ancient DNA research – the extraction of DNA from fossils – in the 1980s emerged at in different places and at different times. The Wilson Lab was one place that pioneered and championed the new science and technology behind ancient DNA research. Over the past three decades, ancient DNA research has experienced intense enthusiasm but also serious skepticism because of problems of authenticity and reproducibility. Today ancient DNA research has moved into a new era, producing ancient genomes instead of single sequences. With these ancient genomes, like the mammoth and Neanderthal, some researchers with interests in conservation biology and synthetic biology are thinking of innovative ways to bring them back to life.

Cover of the National Geographic featuring extinct species.
This magazine cover of National Geographic on reviving extinct species demonstrates the innovative ideas behind resurrecting extinct organisms from ancient molecules, like the woolly mammoth.

Historians can look to the present, as well as the past, for evidence of revolutions. In science and technology, revolutions are emerging and unfolding before our eyes. Molecular paleontology – and particularly the science and technology of ancient DNA research – represents a revolution in modern science. It is challenging the way we see the past and the way we will study it in the future.

Elizabeth Dobson Jones is a PhD candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London. You can tweet her @edobsonjones.

Title Image: Image of Dima found frozen in Russia. Dima represents the first mammoth specimen to be tested for the preservations of ancient molecules, like proteins and DNA.

[1]University of California, Berkeley. “Tissue of Baby Mammoth at Berkeley.” University Bulletin 26:21 (1978): 111.

[2] Sullivan, Walter. “Scientists to Study Mammoth Sample for Clues of Life.” The New York Times, March 9, 1978.

[3] Rudwick, Martin. The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology. London: MacDonald & Company, 1972, 266.

Further Reading:

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1970.

Rudwick, Martin. The Meaning of Fossils: Episodes in the History of Palaeontology. London: MacDonald & Company, 1972.

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