- “This DNA is incredibly old. The samples are a thousand times older than Viking remains.”
- The mammoth was not actually a woolly mammoth: Around one million years ago there were no woolly mammoths.
- The new results also open the door for future studies on other species, researchers say.
The world’s oldest DNA has been discovered, scientists announced in a new study published Wednesday.
The DNA, which is more than 1 million years old, was recovered from two specimens of steppe mammoth, a predecessor to the more well-known woolly mammoth. The oldest previously sequenced DNA had dated from 780,000 to 560,000 years ago, the study said
“This DNA is incredibly old. The samples are a thousand times older than Viking remains, and even predate the existence of humans and Neanderthals,” study lead author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, said in a news release.
The DNA came from the molars of mammoth specimens from the Early and Middle Pleistocene subepochs from northeast Siberia. The teeth had been buried for more than 1 million years in the Siberian permafrost.
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Extracting the DNA from the samples was “challenging,” the scientists said, adding that only minute amounts of DNA remained in the samples and that the DNA was degraded into very small fragments.
The mammoth specimens were first uncovered in the 1970s, and since then they have been stored in Moscow’s Russian Academy of Sciences.
The mammoth was not actually a woolly mammoth: About 1 million years ago there were no woolly mammoths; they had not yet evolved. This was the time of their predecessor, the ancient steppe mammoth, a species from Europe that scientists believe predated both woolly mammoths and Columbian mammoths, a North American species.
The DNA is helping to sort out the genetic history of mammoths and how they migrated and evolved around the world, scientists said. In addition, the study provides new insights into when and how fast mammoths adapted to cold climates.
The new results also open the door for future studies on other species, researchers say. About 1 million years ago, many animal species expanded across the globe, according to the study. This was also a time period of major changes in climate and sea levels, as well as the last time Earth’s magnetic poles changed places.
Because of that, the researchers believe genetic analyses on this time scale have great potential to explore a wide range of scientific questions.
“One of the big questions now is how far back in time we can go,” said Anders Götherström, a professor in molecular archaeology and joint research leader at the Centre for Palaeogenetics.
“We haven’t reached the limit yet,” Götherström said. “An educated guess would be that we could recover DNA that is 2 million years old, and possibly go even as far back as 2.6 million. Before that, there was no permafrost where ancient DNA could have been preserved.”
The study was published in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature.