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OWU Professor Clones Mastodon Genes from Intestinal DNA

March 26, 2001

DELAWARE, OHIO -- How close is the relationship between the American Mastodon that lived more than 10,000 years ago and our present-day elephant?

Through his most recent research involving the cloning of mastodon genes obtained directly from DNA found in the intestinal tract of this ancient mammal, Ohio Wesleyan University Botany/Microbiology professor Jerry Goldstein is discovering important evolutionary linkages.

"We hypothesize that mastodons are probably closely related to the Wooly Mammoth of Siberia, and these animals are probably distantly related to the African and Asian elephants of the present day," says Goldstein. His research has evolved steadily since 1989, when the skeleton of a mastodon was found in a swampy area of the Burning Tree Golf Course in Newark, Ohio. Sherman Byers, the owner of the golf course and Brad Lepper of the Ohio Historical Society arranged to have the bones excavated. The skeleton is now the most complete and best-preserved collection of mastodon bones ever found. But what was found within the animal's rib cage was the start of Goldstein's amazing journey into evolutionary relationships and patterns.

"I obtained a sample of the intestinal material for analysis and was able to culture bacteria that normally live in the intestinal tract of mammals," says Goldstein. The material was so well preserved in the peat bog along with the skeleton, that "the bacteria turned out to be the oldest living microbes ever discovered, and Discover magazine labeled it one of the top 50 stories of 1991."

More recently, after hearing that a scientist had amplified genes from the fossilized dung of an extinct American ground sloth, Goldstein tried the same experiment on the intestinal material of the mastodon.

"I was able to obtain copies of a gene from the mastodon -- only the second gene from a mastodon that has ever been discovered," says Goldstein. He explained that the well-preserved intestinal material is probably a much better source of DNA than the fossilized bones of the animal. "Since last summer, we have increased the number of nucleotides sequenced from the mastodon gene and more mastodon genes are being amplified right now."

This past July, Jennifer LaPlante an OWU graduate of the class of 2000, presented the initial mastodon DNA sequence at the 5th International Ancient DNA Conference in Manchester, England. On March 31, 2001 at the Ohio Academy of Science annual meeting at Mt. Union College in Alliance, Ohio, OWU seniors Anice Sabag and Erin Wagner will present the latest information on the mastodon genes that have been sequenced.

"The more information we have, the better we will be able to compare the DNA sequences of current and extinct animals and calculate the genetic relationships between them," says Goldstein.