Mammoth Blood in the ER?

A 35,000-year old woolly mammoth blood protein may aid in contemporary medical procedures.

Rachel Nuwer
Sep 19, 2011

Woolly Mammoth blood may lend clues to modern medicine.DEREK K MILLER, FLICKR

A cold-tolerant blood protein of the now-extinct woolly mammoth may be the next best thing for surgeries requiring doctors to induce artificial hypothermia, a medical treatment that reduces the risk of ischemic tissue injury after periods of insufficient blood flow.

Among other adaptations to the cold climates mammoths survived during the Pleistocene ice age more than 1 million years ago, the elephant-like mammals accumulated genetic mutations in their hemoglobin gene, which encodes the blood protein that transports oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. To compare the pre-historic hemoglobin with that of modern elephants, scientists synthesized the blood protein in the laboratory by using fragmented DNA sequences from three different 25,000 to 43,000 year-old Siberian mammoths. The resulting hemoglobin, described in Biochemistry, had more robust temperature tolerance than either that of modern Asian elephants and humans, meaning it could still provide tissues with oxygen under freezing conditions.

The researchers suggested that the cold-tolerant hemoglobin may be useful to doctors performing heart and brain operations that require inducing artificial hypothermia, which drastically reduces a patient’s body temperature. Having already identified two mutations in the mammoths’ hemoglobin gene that could be responsible for this adaptation, they argue that the ancient protein could serve as a model for a new line of artificial hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers for use in surgery.

Correction: This story has been updated from its original version to remove the incorrect affiliation between the researchers and the American Chemical Society reported by TG Daily. The Scientist regrets the error.