A genome never forgets: Scientists map DNA of past and present elephants

sequence genome elephants elephant head on
Alberto Ghizzi Panizza/Getty Images
Alberto Ghizzi Panizza/Getty Images

Want to know all there is to know about elephants? If so, you have an international team of researchers to thank for it because they painted one of the most comprehensive evolutionary pictures of all time by sequencing the genome of 14 different species of elephant, ranging from present-day African and Asian elephants to extinct ancestors like the woolly mammoth and American mastodon.

An immensely daunting undertaking, the work is shedding new light on the way that elephants have lived over the years and unpacking some intriguing elephant factoids in the process.

“We found that different elephant species interbred in the past more than once,” Elle Palkopoulou, a post-doctoral scientist at Harvard University Medical School. “For instance, the straight-tusked elephant descended from a mixture of three different evolutionary lineages, while North American woolly mammoths had ancestry from Columbian mammoths. At the same time, today’s African forest and savanna elephants appear to have remained isolated for at least the last 500,000 years, even though local hybridization still occurs between them in areas where the two species meet. But this does not seem to have left traces in the genomes of these species across their ranges.”

sequence genome elephants cap 1525
JD Howell, McMaster University
JD Howell, McMaster University

The comprehensive genomic study involved researchers from McMaster University , the Broad Institute, Harvard Medical School, Uppsala University, and the University of Potsdam. It’s an extraordinary example of how modern scientific techniques can be used to help reveal more details about the natural world. It could also, the researchers claim, have a key role to play in helping with elephant conservation efforts.

“This is the first study to establish with complete nuclear genomes that the two African elephants, in fact, comprise two distinct species, and therefore reinforces the need for conservation policies to protect the two African elephants separately,” Palkopoulou continued. “It also highlights how rich the evolutionary history of the family of elephants has been in the past, despite the fact that only three species survive today. Future work aiming to understand in more detail the population structure of living elephants will contribute to conservation efforts of these iconic animals.”

The work was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science under the title “A comprehensive genomic history of extinct and living elephants.”

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