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Significant science behind new CFDC exhibit

By Lorne Stelmach

A new exhibit unveiled at the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre in Morden might make one think of the fictional world of Jurassic Park movies.

There is some genuine groundbreaking science however behind the exhibit officially opened to the public here Monday.

The display features the world’s first public exhibition of a woolly mammoth blood component, and directors were excited to have a new display that can stir the imagination as well as explain and promote the science of it.

“We are thrilled to be able to be at the forefront of paleo-biology with this one-of-a-kind display,” said CFDC acting executive director Peter Cantelon.

“If you were to go back in time with a syringe, remove mammoth blood and separate out the hemoglobin, this is exactly what you would have,” he explained. “The last time a human being has been this close to mammoth blood was more than 10,000 years ago when they were being hunted by paleolithic peoples.”

The exhibit was made possible thanks to a donation of the hemoglobin from Winnipeg’s Kevin Campbell, a University of Manitoba professor of environmental and evolutionary physiology who grew up in Morden and also vice-president of the board for the CFDC.

Campbell’s research was instrumental in the resurrection of the hemoglobin, and he commented that “it tells us, in some ways, extinction may not be forever.

“Now we have the capability maybe not to bring back fully extinct species but we’re now bringing back components of them and studying them as if they are still alive.”

The small vial of deep red mammoth hemoglobin is held in the tusks of a mammoth model in a diorama that also displays a portion of mammoth tusk recovered from Grunthal, Manitoba.

And it is the CFDC’s first Ice Age exhibit, allowing people a glimpse of an ancient creature which became extinct over 10,000 years ago.

Recent advances in biotechnology enabled Campbell, in conjunction with other scientists, to not only re-create functional genes from extinct animals but also to faithfully assemble and study the proteins the genes once encoded.

He explained their work basically “resurrected it using actual mammoth DNA that was too fragmented and damaged to be of any functional use, so we actually took elephant DNA ... and we modified it such that it was identifical to the mammoth DNA.

“And then we took this DNA and put it into e-coli bacteria, which are little protein building factories just like ourselves. And they followed the recipe just like ourselves ... just like a mammoth blood cell would ... and they produced perfectly authentic mammoth hemoglobin. In this case, it was a 43,000 year old blood sample that they produced.”

The advantage then is they are not “just looking at static bones ... we’re actually able to look at function.”

And by doing so, they were able to determine some remarkable ‘living’ characteristics of woolly mammoths.

As it turns out, with the mammoth hemoglobin, the function was very different from that of living elephants. They had a couple of changes that allowed the hemoglobin to offload oxygen at really cold temperatures, Campbell said.

“Resurrecting this red blood cell protein hemoglobin from a woolly mammoth has shown that the normally temperature sensitive protein evolved novel adaptations that, unlike living (tropical) elephants, enabled it to do its job of delivering oxygen to body tissues in the cold conditions these beasts faced.

“Prior to these new techniques, we had no way to deduce, let alone test for, these kinds of attributes from fossilized remains,” he said. “Being able to re-create and study authentic genetic material from extinct species is a whole new frontier in paleo-biology and research into ancient life.”

And he said there could be potential practical applications with the ability to manufacture artificial blood substitutes for various procedures. As well, there are cases such as with spinal injuries where they have learned “most of the damage is actually after the event ... the swelling and other things ... so now what they do is bring down people’s body temperature.”

Campbell’s research was the subject of a recent article featured in Scientific American magazine, and his work has also been featured in other publications including the New York Times, BBC Nature, London Daily Mail and Toronto Star.


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