Along evolution, genes mutate to allow adaptation to environmental conditions. Scientists from Penn State University, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, and the University of Chicago have recently identified the genetic changes that helped the woolly mammoth survive in the Arctic.

Comparing the complete set of genes of the woolly mammoth with their closest living relatives, the Asian elephant and the African elephant, scientists have identified some of the mutations responsible for the adaptation of the extinct wooly mammoth to extreme cold. Interestingly, most of these mutations are in genes involved in hair development, temperature sensing and body fat storage and metabolism, all of them crucial to survive in harsh arctic conditions.

One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of this study is that some of the computational predictions were verified by laboratory experiments. For instance, it has been confirmed that a mammoth-specific change in a protein called TRPV3, related to temperature sensation, hair growth, and body-fat storage, modifies the protein’s response to temperature changes.

Identifying the genetic changes that underlie evolution of physical traits is challenging, particularly in extinct organisms, and it is a matter of understanding how genes mutate along evolution to allow adaptation to environmental changing conditions.

– Dr Maria Gonzalez