Ancient DNA has recovered from a 1.2 million-year-old mammoth – the oldest DNA recovered by the longest route. Not only is this incredible feat pushing the limits of what is scientifically capable, but the project has also revealed a new generation in the extended family. The international study, led by the Center for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, published today in the journal Nature.
Genetic material taken from the teeth of three mammoths buried in the Siberian permafrost in the 19 1970s. Two of these specimens are more than 1 million years old and predict the existence of woolly mammoths, while the third represents about 700,000 years old and one of the oldest woolly mammoths.
“This is the oldest DNA recovery so far,” said Professor Love Dalén, author of the study at the Center for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, at a news conference on Tuesday. The second of the specimens is an ancient steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii), a direct ancestor of the wool mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), but the oldest specimen belongs to an unknown genetic lineage before the mammoth, now known as the Krestovka mammoth. It now looks like a Colombian mammoth ((Mammuthus columbi) that lived in North America in the last American era. Researchers have estimated that the oldest mammoth is 1.2 million years old as it must have been 1.34 million years old.
No matter what you guess, it is significantly older than the previous record holder of old sequenced DNA, found from a horse preserved per 780,000-560,000 years ago in the Canadian Permafrost. “A good analogy is thinking about a puzzle. We have many, many small puzzle pieces and we are trying to reconstruct the puzzle. The smaller the piece you have, the harder it is to reconstruct the whole puzzle, “explained Dr. Tom van der Valk, lead study author at the Center for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm.
To make matters worse, many of the puzzles they come across are not even mammoths but it related to bacteria or fungi that have contaminated the specimens. Fortunately, they have a few puzzles that help them put the puzzle together. Looking at the front cover of the puzzle box for clues, the researchers found a remarkably high genome of woolly mammoths and current elephant relatives.
Now that the study has shown what is achievable, the team believes that it is theoretically possible to recover DNA older than mammoths. Can Yet, a treasure trove of natural history can be found from this vast period, not just a few chapters defined in our own human story. “It is possible that, in the future, there will be methods to recover DNA from 1 million-year-old human non-permafrost samples,” said Professor Dalén.
“Another option is to look for Homo erectus in permafrost. No such find has found to date, but it would be quite possible for anyone to find human remains in permafrost in this age. It easier said than done, because we got DNA from mammoths.”