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Scientists discover the oldest DNA ever recovered, revealing a strange 2 million year old ecosystem

By: April Carson

Two million years ago, the high Arctic wasn't anything like it is today. In fact, it was much warmer and greener. There were even bears, beavers, and camel-like creatures that called these extreme northern latitudes home.

However, such fossilized proof is challenging to locate as the most recent Ice Age brought glaciers that wiped the land clean on numerous occasions, in someArctic regions down to the bedrock. “For quite a while, people didn't pay much attention to places like northern Canada or Greenland because it was unlikely that anything would be found there," Ross MacPhee states. He's senior curator at American Museum of Natural History and specializes in Ice Age mammals. "We only had our dreams and our imagination."

But now, thanks to the discovery of a 700,000-year-old horse bone in 2003, scientists have been able to piece together the puzzle of Arctic life from two million years ago.

A team of scientists from the University of Copenhagen has published a study in Nature today, revealing their remarkable feat: retrieving and analyzing 2 million-year-old DNA. This is a major breakthrough, pushing back the record by at least a million years. The DNA retrieved from the sediment cores at the north edge of Greenland is revealing some stunning information about the plants and animals that once inhabited that area. What's most surprising is the blend of arctic and temperate species - something unlike anything else existing today.

With this new discovery, experts believe that paleontology will forever change and provide more insight into worlds we once thought lost. Furthermore, understanding how species adapted in the past could give us a advantage against climate change now. “It's as though we really do have a time machine in a way that we never expected,” MacPhee says. “We can go back in time and we can look at the biology of ancient creatures, and potentially even find modern adaptations that they might have had.”

The oldest known DNA

You may not realize it, but we are constantly losing DNA as our cells die and are replaced. For example, when you shed skin cells or brush your hair, you're also letting go of DNA. Environmental DNA (eDNA) can last for centuries, depending on the surrounding environment. In recent years, eDNA has become an increasingly popular topic among scientists. By taking samples of dirt, water, or air, they are able to study and understand what organisms live in that area currently or might have lived there in the past.

This is exactly how scientists were able to recover the oldest DNA ever found. By taking samples from a sediment core in the Cariaco Basin of Venezuela, they discovered evidence of a strange 2 million year old ecosystem that was much different than what we are used to today.

In order to study the polar regions, Willerslev and his team looked at DNA from 41 sources in the Kap København area of Greenland. They then took these cores to sterile labs that had been rid of any modern day bacteria or microorganisms that could contaminate the research. From the samples, they were able to reveal that during this time period, the ecosystem was made up of a variety of organisms including an array of bacteria, plants and animals.

According to Willerslev, people believed that DNA could only survive for a few hundred thousand years maximum because that is how longDNA lasts in liquid form. However, the DNA found bonded to clay, quartz and other particles within sediment suggests otherwise--this type of DNA can last much longer than first assumed. Because DNA has a slight electric charge, it can become stuck to minerals like clay and quartz over time. This electrostatic charge protects the DNA from further damage or digestion by enzymes. However, this same thing that makesDNA so long-lived also makes it difficult to retrieve. Through years of trial and error, Willerslev and his team have developed targeted methods for getting the sediments to “release” the DNA stuck to them.

This breakthrough discovery provides a window into a strange and distant ecosystem. For example, the oldest DNA recovered was from an extinct giant deer that lived in the area 2 million years ago.

The next obstacle was that there was an abundance of DNA to go through, and the pieces they had gathered were tiny. eDNA researchers have predominantly used a process called “metabarcoding” to identify plants and animals by searching for chloroplasts or mitochondrial DNA within a soup of collected DNA. This process is time-consuming, as the library of known sequences must be consulted to confirm specific species against the results. Gilbert compares metabarcoding to sorting through ripped pages in order to determine which book they come from; while some title information would be available, it would be much easier if every page had its title included.

Willerslev's team required a newer, morepractical process known as "metabarcoding" to look at the DNA of an ecosystem because it makes copies of select pages. Rather than this method though, they used "shotgun sequencing".

shotgun sequencing is similar to metabarcoding in that it makes copies of every page; however, it does so in parallel and with longer DNA snippets. By comparing the unknown DNA sequence to a library of all known DNA sequences, researchers can identify organisms using shorter fragments. However, this process is often quite costly due to the need for powerful computers sorting through and discarding all of the bacterial DNA.

Using this method, scientists were able to reconstruct a complete ecosystem from 2 million year old sediments. While some of the organisms they identified were expected based on the fossil record, many others surprised them.

The importance of having a plan

Willerslev describes Kap København today as a "wasteland," explaining that it looks like you are in the Sahara Desert with its gray dunes and few patches of lichen or moss. MacPhee's findings give novel insights into what is now an uninhabitable wasteland. He explains that a verdant forest once flourished near where a river met the sea. The surrounding area was rich with grazing reindeer and hares, while geese flew overhead and mastodons roamed the nearby woods.

According to Willerslev, groups of plants typically thought of as "arctic" co-existed with trees better suited for warmer climates in forests that no longer exist on Earth today. This finding suggests that these communities are much more adaptable to a changing climate than we previously believed. These strange bedfellows represent a potentially positive sign in our warming world.

However, it is not easy to derive conclusions from ancient genetic materials. One of the reasons for this is that we need to compare an unknown sequence with a library of known sequences in order to identify it. Willerslev and his colleagues found evidence for at Kap København, the recovered DNA snippets may be too short to make such a positive identification. For example, he wouldn’t rule out the possibility that that DNA could belong to another elephant-like creature such as a gomphothere, the mastodon's often-forgotten cousin. In other words, what happens when the information provided by DNA is so old that it's limited?

Dating with DNA can be a challenge because carbon-based materials are often dated more precisely. To date the DNA itself, dating of the surrounding materials is essential - though that process in and of itself is difficult to do precisely. According to Gilbert, a sediment layer can provide significant information depending on how it was formed. For example, an inch of soilrepresenting anything from one year up to 10,000 years. In fact, Rybczynski speculates that some the DNA found could be older than 2 million years ago-- which is only based on the plant diversity and site similarity to Pliocene-age areas she's researched in the past.

As Willerslev pointed out, the lack of carnivore DNA in the samples indicates that we still do not have a full understanding of what occurred. This is due to eDNA's inability to show "relative abundance." In other words, it can't easily demonstrate whether there were more mastodons than reindeer or vice versa. If an elephant urinates tens of liters per day, its mastodon ancestor likely did as well. Gilbert says, "Now think about how much urine a mouse makes." The disparity between those two amounts illustrates why eDNA research cannot provide all the answers at this time.

This is why the research team will continue to probe into ancient DNA from various sources, such as ice cores and sediment, for further evidence of this strange 2 million year old ecosystem. In addition, the discovery of this oldest DNA ever recovered has opened up the possibility of further discoveries about past ecosystems and life forms that were once thought to be impossible. As Gilbert explains, “The potential we have now of diving into the past and seeing what was really happening is really exciting.”

Roundtable of Truth, Lost History, Anunnaki, Age of Aquarius with Billy Carson


About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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