Using hair from a 20,000 year-old mammoth, Penn State researchers have successfully deciphered more than half of the extinct mammal's DNA. The feat was made possible by new "high throughput" DNA sequencing technology, which is able to generate massive amounts of DNA sequence in very short order.
Not surprisingly, the mammoth's DNA is amazingly similar to the current-day African elephant. In fact, the close evolutionary relationship (~99.6% DNA identity) has led some to speculate that it might be possible to "fill in the gaps" of the missing mammoth DNA with elephant DNA. Then you'd be on your way to re-creating a complete set of genetic instructions for a mammoth. Get the genes into an egg, figure out how to trick the egg into thinking it's been fertilized, and...
Well, not so fast. As pointed out in the journal Nature, the idea of bringing a mammoth's DNA sequence "to life" faces enormous technical hurdles. Not least among these is that we do not yet have the technology to synthesize and assemble mammalian chromosome-length stretches of DNA (tens to hundreds of millions of letters). Currently, the record for a synthetic chromosome is approximately half a million letters. There's also the issue of getting the DNA appropriately packaged into chromosomes, getting the chromosomes, undamaged, inside an egg cell nucleus, figuring out how to activate the egg cell nucleus, etc. Let's just say that the mammoth won't be brought back from extinction any time soon.
But do stay tuned for news regarding the world's first synthetic bacterium. The J. Craig Venter Institute announced last summer that they had synthesized the Mycoplasma genitalium genome and were working on getting the synthetic genome working inside of a bacterial cell.
Here's a link to Penn State's Woolly Mammoth Genome Project site.