A single genetic change may have made woolly mammoths fat, hairy and cold-loving.
Researchers deciphered the genomes of two woolly mammoths that died about 20,000 and 60,000 years ago. When comparing the mammoths’ DNA with that from three Asian elephants, researchers noted that mammoths had different forms of some proteins involved in sensing temperature.
In the lab, the team produced one of the mammoth temperature sensors, a protein called TRPV3. As computer models had predicted, the mammoth protein was 20 percent less active than the elephant version, researchers report in the July 14 Cell Reports.
Mice that lack that protein prefer cooler temperatures and have more fat than usual. The mice also have curly whiskers and wavy hair. Reduced activity of TRPV3 may have led to similar temperature tolerance and physical changes in woolly mammoths.
“My wild speculation is that they actually liked the cold,” says coauthor Vincent Lynch, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago.