June 2009 -

Webb Miller, '67, '69

Webb Miller
Photo courtesy of Pennsylvania State
Amid such illustrious company as Barack Obama, Paul Krugman and Oprah Winfrey, Webb Miller, '67, '69, earned a spot on TIME magazine's annual list of the "100 Most Influential People." Miller, a biology professor at Penn State University, and colleague Stephan Schuster were among the first to successfully sequence the DNA of an extinct species, the 20,000-year-old woolly mammoth. The scientists were able to examine nuclear DNA—DNA found in the nucleus of the cells—a genetic material previously thought to be unfit for analysis because of its rapid degeneration after death. By bleaching the mammoth hair shafts that housed the material, Miller and Schuster isolated the nuclear DNA from bacterial DNA, making it viable for study. Though genetic mapping unlocks the possibility of resurrecting extinct species, there's no need to fear a Jurassic Park-style reappearance of the woolly mammoth anytime soon; the genetic code is still incomplete. Miller and Schuster are using their discovery to try and determine what caused the species to die out. "I would sleep easier if I were convinced that the same catastrophe, whatever it was, that caused the extinction of woolly mammoths cannot happen to us," Miller told Penn State Live. He believes the ability to decipher extinct species' DNA can help us learn from the past in a new way, possibly preventing future extinctions.—Kelly Gilblom