It’s a discovery straight out of a Jurassic Park movie.
Scientists have found two-million-year-old DNA for the first time, breaking the previous record by one million years.
The microscopic fragments, each a few millionths of a millimeter long, were found in Ice Age sediment in northern Greenland.
Thanks to the DNA, experts have been able to map a prehistoric ecosystem made up of animals such as reindeer, hares, lemmings and even mastodons, often described as a hairy elephant from the Ice Age.
DNA has allowed experts to map a prehistoric ecosystem made up of animals such as reindeer, hares, lemmings and even mastodons, often described as a hairy ice age elephant
Mastodon’s range was previously thought not to have stretched far from its known origins in North America, but this new discovery proves it roamed as far as Greenland before becoming extinct.
Evidence of plants such as birch and poplar were also found, as well as a range of microorganisms.
Professor Eske Willerslev, a fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, said: ‘A new chapter has finally opened covering an additional million years of history and for the first time we can look directly at the DNA of an ecosystem from the past so far back in time. time.
“DNA can degrade quickly, but we’ve shown that under the right conditions we can now go further back in time than anyone could have imagined.”
The microscopic fragments, each a few millionths of a millimeter long, were found in Ice Age sediment in northern Greenland
Freshly thawed moss from the permafrost coastal deposits. The moss was created by erosion from the river that cut through the landscape at Kap København some two million years ago
The 41 usable DNA samples were found hidden in clay and quartz in the Kobenhavn Formation, a sediment deposit nearly 100 meters thick tucked in the mouth of a fjord in the Arctic Ocean.
Professor Kurt Kjaer, from the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Center at the University of Copenhagen, said: ‘The ancient DNA samples were found buried deep in sediment that had built up over 20,000 years.
“The sediment was ultimately preserved in ice or permafrost and, crucially, not disturbed by humans for two million years.”
Detective work by a team of 40 researchers from Denmark, the UK, France, Sweden, Norway, the US and Germany has unlocked the secrets of the DNA fragments.
While quite a few bits of Mastodon DNA were found, the researchers said they were too fragmented and didn’t cover the entire genome – meaning that reviving the species through cloning still wouldn’t be possible.
A two-million-year-old trunk of a larch tree still trapped in the permafrost within the coastal deposits. The rivers that eroded the former forest landscape carried the tree to the sea
The team said their discovery could provide clues on how best to counter the “devastating impact of global warming.” In the photo: artist’s impression of the Kap København formation today
However, the team said their discovery could provide clues on how best to counter the “devastating impact of global warming.”
“Expeditions are expensive and many of the samples were taken in 2006 when the team was in Greenland on another project,” said Professor Kjaer. They’ve been stored ever since.
‘Only when a new generation of DNA extraction and sequencing equipment was developed were we able to locate and identify extremely small and damaged DNA fragments in the sediment samples.
‘It is possible that genetic engineering could mimic the strategy developed by plants and trees two million years ago to survive in a climate characterized by rising temperatures and prevent the extinction of some species, plants and trees.
“This is one reason why this scientific advancement is so important, because it could reveal how we can try to counteract the devastating impact of global warming.”
Professor Eske Willerslev and a colleague are sampling sediments for environmental DNA in Greenland
Professor Willerslev said it is ‘possible that clay preserved ancient DNA in warm, moist environments at sites in Africa’.
“If we can start examining ancient DNA in clay pebbles from Africa, we might be able to collect groundbreaking information about the origins of many different species — maybe even new knowledge about the first humans and their ancestors — the possibilities are endless,” he said.
In the Jurassic Park movie, scientists found fragmented dinosaur DNA preserved in amber and successfully filled the genetic gaps with frog DNA.
Unfortunately for fans, while the concept of cloning an animal from DNA is viable, experts say dinosaur genes preserved in amber wouldn’t survive to this day.
The research has been published in the journal Nature.
In the photo: a reconstructed mastodon
Mastodons — whose name means “chest tooth,” after the nipple-like projections on their molars — are ancient relatives of the elephant.
They lived in North and Central America from about 5.3 million years ago during the Pliocene to about 10,000–11,000 years ago.
Thought to be mainly forest animals living in herds, mastodons would have consumed a mixed diet based on both browsing and, to a lesser extent, grazing.
Like other large Pleistocene animals, their extinction is believed to have been caused by a combination of climate change and overexploitation by hunters of the Paleo-American Clovis culture.
They had a build similar to the modern Asian elephant, could grow to about 9 feet (2.8 m) in length, and weigh up to 11 tons.
Mastodons are often depicted with a hair coat – much like a woolly mammoth – but this is not real evidence to support this trait.