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Polish geneticists want to recreate the extinct auroch

28.11.2007 Nature, Scientists

Using DNA from auroch remains held in museums, Polish geneticists from the Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology of the Agricultural University in Poznań and the Institute of Human Genetics of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN) want to recreate the auroch – an animal, which in the middle ages was a symbol of Polish forests. The project has already gained the support of the Ministry of the Environment.

The initiator and coordinator of this idea is the Polish Foundation for Recreating the Auroch (PFOT). This organisation was established on 13th October 2006. It unites eminent Polish specialists in the fields of genetics, embryology and biotechnology. Prof. Ryszard Słomski from the Poznań Agricultural Academy and Prof. Jacek A. Modliński from the Department of Experimental Embryology at the Institute of Genetics and Animal Husbandry at PAN in Jastrzębiec near Warsaw play a leading role here. The launching of PFOT coincided with the official unveiling of a plaque commemorating aurochs at the Warsaw Zoo.

While explaining their interest in the auroch, Prof. Słomski said “This is an animal linked with Poland, our lands. In a sense, it symbolises our country. This is where the last representatives of the species died out”. The objectives of the foundation include obtaining and gathering funds, mainly from private sponsors and EU funds.

The auroch (Bos primigenius) was one of the largest animals ever to inhabit Europe. An adult male reached 3 metres in length and 2 metres at the withers, weighing between 800 and 1,000 kg. It was an even-toed ungulate. Scientists believe that the auroch was domesticated in Asia about 608,000 years ago and is the forebear of most modern cattle species.

The ancestors of the auroch appeared in the Pleistocene (2 million years ago) in India. With time, the animals spread to the whole of Asia and Europe as well as North Africa. They lived in forests located in lowlands, where they had a wide variety of single-leaf plants (various types of grass etc.). Female aurochs usually gave birth once a year to a single calf, after a 9 month pregnancy.

The last aurochs died in Poland. They started dying out from the 10th century, but later the process accelerated – Prof. Słomski explained. “First the animals disappeared from Western Europe (in the 10th century in France, between the 11th and 12th century in Germany). In the 14th century, they only lived in Mazowsze region. Finally in 1627 in Jaktorowska forest near Grodzisk Mazowiecki, the last auroch heifer died”.

The causes of this were hunting, a narrowing habitat (due to the development of farming), climatic changes and diseases transmitted by cattle. “Maybe it was a disease, maybe harsh winters or other factors – Słomski noted. - This will also be an object of our research. It is worth precisely examining the causes of the extinction of the auroch, if only to prevent a similar situation occurring among domestic cattle”.

Polish scientists want to use the DNA stored in the fossilised bones of aurochs displayed in our museums so as to return the animals to our forests. “The planned research is in tune with contemporary searches on ancient (fossilised) DNA – says the chairman of the foundation, Dr Mirosław Ryba. – Such research has been run in the West over the past 20 years and its results are published in such periodicals as ‘Nature’, ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA’, which nobody classifies as science fiction”.

The scientists believe that thanks to modern genetics and biotechnology as it stands now, it is possible to recreate an animal almost identical to the extinct auroch (99 percent gene compatibility).

“This project is not only the recreation of the species – Prof. Słomski noted. – It is also understanding its history, studying its relation to other species, indicating its closest relatives, noting similarities and differences with domestic cattle. Therefore it is important to treat this recreation on a wider scale than simply leading to the birth of a living animal”. He also noted that this project helps us understand how many species are becoming extinct before our own eyes and perhaps will help devise methods for preventing this.

Prof. Słomski said that they have already completed the first two steps, which lead to the recreation of an extinct species – firstly isolating its DNA, then assessing whether it will undergo laboratory procedures. Słomski noted that they are currently studying the auroch DNA, if they obtain funds, research will progress much faster, otherwise it will have to continue at a slow pace.

Prof. Słomski noted that he would like the research to be held in Poland, not only for reasons of prestige, but also because the possibility to work in the field of biotechnology is “extremely motivating and very valuable. It enables learning a lot, implementing many procedures and taking part in the exchange of scientific thought”. The research is held at the Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology of the Poznań Agricultural University, but the research group also includes scientists from the PAN Institute of Human Genetics.

In his view the reproduction process should be as follows “first you need to learn the history of a given species, identify its relatives and the differences, which divide them followed by the causes of extinction. If during these studies we manage to also produce an animal, which has auroch features, this will be the last stage and crowning of our activity. But it is important to note that the previous stages are equally important”.

***

Prof. Ryszard Słomski is the head of the Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnolgy at the Agricultural Academy in Poznań and the deputy director for academic issues at the PAN Institute of Human Technology in Poznań. He works on molecular diagnostics of genetic diseases, the characteristics of new human genes, biotechnology and forensic medicine.

He is the author of numerous papers, articles and books. The supervisor of 11 PhD theses and 46 master’s theses. Since 1989 he has organised Summer Schools on molecular biology. He has also received many awards. He has been an academic intern at the University of Chicago, University of Illinois and Harvard Medical School. He was a scholarship holder of the A. Humboldt Foundation. He is a member of many academic and scientific societies.

Prof. Jacek Modliński runs the PAN Department of Experimental Embryology at the Institute of Genetics and Animal Husbandry in Jastrzębiec. Since the 1970s, he has worked on issues connected with cloning mammals and experimental embryology in mammals.

Besides conducting scientific research, the members of the foundation also work on promoting knowledge about the aurochs.

PAP - Science and Scholarship in Poland, Katarzyna Czechowicz, tr.ajfb

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