The oldest DNA was discovered 2 million years ago in Greenland. Last Minute EUROPE, CURRENT headlines and events
Experts who have discovered the oldest known DNA have found a clue to what life was like on the northern tip of Greenland 2 million years ago. Greenland, which today is an empty arctic desert, was a verdant region covered in vegetation made up of trees and various animal species, including the extinct mastodon, 2 million years ago, according to DNA data.
“The study opens the door to a lost past,” said Kurt Kjær, a geologist and glacier expert at the University of Copenhagen.
The researchers extracted environmental DNA (eDNA) from soil samples because animal fossils are hard to come by. It consists of genetic material scattered around by organisms, such as hair, feces, saliva, or decomposed corpses.
Working with ancient DNA is fraught with great difficulty, as the genetic material degrades over time, leaving only tiny pieces.
A 2 million year old tree trunk at Cape Copenhavn, Greenland.
However, genetics expert Eske Willersley from the University of Cambridge said that thanks to the latest technology, they were able to obtain genetic data from small and damaged DNA fragments. In a study published today in the scientific journal Nature, experts compared the DNA they found with DNA from different living creatures to find matches.
The samples were taken from the Cap Copenhagen sedimentary deposit on the Pirie Land peninsula in northern Greenland. Kjær says the region today is an arctic wilderness.
Willersley notes that millions of years ago, the region experienced intense climate change and increased temperatures. It is believed that this sediment accumulated over tens of thousands of years before the climate cooled and concreted the finds under a layer of frozen soil.
Greenland’s cold climate has helped preserve fragile and sensitive DNA fragments since 2006 before experts began drilling to collect samples.
Experts note that an unusually diverse species of plants and animals lived in the region during the warm period, when the average temperature in Greenland was 11-19 degrees higher than today. DNA fragments show that arctic plant species, such as birch and willow shrubs, coexist with species that grow in warmer climates, such as cedar and fir.
The DNA fragments also contain traces of animals such as geese, hares, reindeer and wild rats.
Kjær said one of the biggest surprises was the discovery of the DNA of an endangered mastodon, which looks like a mixture of an elephant and a mammoth.
Many mastodon fossils have been found earlier in the temperate forests of North America. But Willersley says there is a large ocean between North America and Greenland, and that North American mastodon fossils have been found in much more northerly regions.
“It would never have occurred to me to find a mastodon in northern Greenland,” says evolutionary genome researcher Love Dalen of Stockholm University.
Experts say the region also harbors crabs and seaweed, according to their findings from sediments at the mouth of the fjord. This indicates that 2 million years ago the water in Greenland was much warmer.
DNA expert Benjamin Verno of the Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Max Planck in Germany says finding finds from multiple sedimentary specimens for a large number of living species demonstrates the benefits of environmental DNA.
DNA ecologist expert Laura Epp of the University of Konstanz in Germany says it’s hard to say based on the available data whether the species lived side by side at the time. According to the expert, the DNA of these species could have come from different parts of Greenland.
Willersley says these plant and animal species have managed to survive a period of major climate change, and that their DNA may provide us with a “genetic roadmap” on how to adapt to the current global warming.
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