Teeth from mammoths buried in Siberian permafrost for more than a million years have yielded the oldest DNA sequenced ever, according to a study published Wednesday, illuminating a genetic focus in the deep past.
The researchers said the three specimens, one about 800,000 years old and two more than a million years old, provide important insights into giant Ice Age mammals, including the ancient heritage of the woolly mammoth.
The genomes far exceed the oldest previously sequenced DNA, a horse dating from 780,000 to 560,000 years ago.
This DNA is too old. The specimens are a thousand times older than Viking remains and even precede the existence of humans and Neanderthals, said Love Dalen, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm and the lead author of the study, published in the journal Nature.
Mammoths were first discovered in the 1970s in Siberia and held at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow.
The researchers first dated the samples geologically, by comparison with other species, such as small rodents, known as unique for specific time periods and found in the same sedimentary layers.
This suggested that two of the mammals were ancient steppe mammoths more than a million years old.
The youngest of the trio is one of the earliest woolly mammoths still found.
Fusion of DNA image pieces
The researchers also extracted genetic data from small dust samples from each mammoth tooth, essentially like a pinch of salt that you would place on your dinner plate, Dalen told a news conference.
While it was degraded into very small fragments, scientists were able to list the tens of millions of pairs of chemical bases that make up DNA strands and perform age estimates from genetic information.
This suggested that the oldest mammoth, named Krestovka, is even older at approximately 1.65 million years old, while the second, Adycha, is about 1.34 million years old and the youngest Chukochya is 870,000 years old.
Dalen said the discrepancy for the older mammoth could be an understatement in the DNA dating process, meaning the creature is likely to be about 1.2 million years old, as suggested by geological evidence.
But he said it was possible the specimen was indeed older and had melted from permanent frost at some point and then wedged into a newer layer of sediment.
The DNA fragments were like an enigma with millions of tiny pieces, way, way, way smaller than you would get from modern, high-quality DNA, said lead author Tom van der Valk, of Science Lab for Life, Uppsala University.
Using a genome from an African elephant, a modern relative of the mammoth, as a blueprint for their algorithm, the researchers were able to reconstruct parts of the mammoth genomes.
The study found that the old mammoth Krestovka represents a previously unknown genetic lineage, which researchers estimated was removed from other mammoths about two million years ago and was the ancestor of those who colonized North America.
The study also traced the lineage of the millionaire Adycha steppe mammoths to Chukochya and other more recent woolly mammoths.
He found variants of genes linked to Arctic life, such as hair follicles, thermoregulation, fat deposits and cold tolerance in the old specimen, suggesting that mammoths were already hairy long before the woolly mammoth emerged.
Ice age giants
Siberia has alternated between the dry and cold conditions of the Ice Age and the warm and humid periods.
Now climate change is melting the permanent frost and is revealing more specimens, Dalen said, though rainfall could mean the debris has been washed away.
He said the new technologies mean that it may be possible to sequester even the old DNA from debris found in permanent freezing, which dates back 2.6 million years ago.
Researchers are eager to look at creatures such as cat ancestors, muskrats, wolves and lemmings, to shed some light on the evolution of modern species.
Genomics has been pushed deep into the Ice Age giants, said Alfred Roca, a professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in a series of comments published in Nature.
The small mammals that surrounded them may soon have their day too.
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