Study 'Opens Door Into a Past That Has Basically Been Lost'

Oldest DNA tells us what life once occupied Greenland
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 7, 2022 2:20 PM CST
Study 'Opens Door Into a Past That Has Basically Been Lost'
This 2006 photo provided by researchers shows the landscape at Kap Kobenhavn, Greenland. The many hills have been formed by rivers running towards the coast.   (Kurt H. Kjaer via AP)

Scientists discovered the oldest known DNA and used it to reveal what life was like 2 million years ago in the northern tip of Greenland. Today, it’s a barren Arctic desert, but back then it was a lush landscape of trees and vegetation with an array of animals, even the now extinct mastodon. With animal fossils hard to come by, the researchers extracted environmental DNA, also known as eDNA, from soil samples. This is the genetic material that organisms shed into their surroundings—for example, through hair, waste, spit, or decomposing carcasses, reports the AP. "The study opens the door into a past that has basically been lost," said lead author Kurt Kjær, a geologist and glacier expert at the University of Copenhagen.

Studying really old DNA can be a challenge because the genetic material breaks down over time, leaving scientists with only tiny fragments. But with the latest technology, researchers were able to get genetic information out of the small, damaged bits of DNA, explained senior author Eske Willerslev, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge. In their study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, they compared the DNA to that of different species, looking for matches. During the region's warm period, when average temperatures were 20 to 34 degrees Fahrenheit higher than today, the area was filled with an unusual array of plant and animal life, the researchers reported.

The DNA fragments suggest a mix of Arctic plants, like birch trees and willow shrubs, with ones that usually prefer warmer climates, like firs and cedars. The DNA also showed traces of animals including geese, hares, reindeer, and lemmings. Previously, a dung beetle and some hare remains had been the only signs of animal life at the site, Willerslev said. One big surprise was finding DNA from the mastodon, an extinct species that looks like a mix between an elephant and a mammoth, Kjær said. Many mastodon fossils have previously been found from temperate forests in North America. That’s an ocean away from Greenland, and much farther south, Willerslev said.

"I wouldn’t have, in a million years, expected to find mastodons in northern Greenland,” said Love Dalen, a researcher in evolutionary genomics at Stockholm University who was not involved in the study. Because the sediment built up in the mouth of a fjord, researchers were also able to get clues about marine life from this time period. The DNA suggests horseshoe crabs and green algae lived in the area, meaning the nearby waters were likely much warmer back then, Kjær said. Stockholm University's Dalen expects ancient DNA research to keep pushing deeper into the past. He worked on the study that previously held the "oldest DNA" record, from a mammoth tooth around a million years old. "I wouldn’t be surprised if you can go at least one or perhaps a few million years further back, assuming you can find the right samples," Dalen said.

(Read more discoveries stories.)

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