Scientists discovered the oldest known DNA from two million years ago, and used it to reconstruct life on Greenland´s Northern tip. Today the area in Northern Greenland is a polar desert, but the genetic material extracted from the soil has uncovered a rich array of plants and animals including elephant-like mammals such as mastodons.
The research was conducted in an area called KAP Copenhagen which is in the northernmost part of Greenland. Until now it has been hard to turn back the clock and see what this region was like two million years ago. Animal fossils from this period are extremely rare. The samples were first dug in the year 2006 but earlier DNA detection efforts failed. The methods used to extract ancient DNA have since improved eventually allowing a breakthrough researchers turned to environmental DNA, or EDNA.
EDNA is a genetic material that is shared from plants and animals for example from skin cells or droppings and accumulates in the surroundings. It´s a technique that is now widely used in conservation in Greenland. The scientist team use Ancient soil samples to look back in time at the biology of the early Pleistocene Epoch.
We are breaking the barrier of what we thought we could reach in terms of genetic studies,» said Mikkel Winther Pedersen, scientist and co-author of a new study published on Wednesday in the science journal Nature. «It was long thought that one million years was the boundary of DNA survival, but now we are twice as old» as that.
The «rivers running through the environment transported minerals and organic material into the marine environment, and this was where these terrestrial sediments were deposited,» said scientist Winther Pedersen.
Then, at some point around two million years ago, «this land mass beneath the water was raised up and became a part of North Greenland,» he explained.
The method used «provides a fundamental understanding of why minerals, or sediments, can preserve DNA», said Karina Sand, who heads the geobiology team at the University of Copenhagen and who took part in the study.
Two million years ago the place had a forested environment with mastodons and reindeer and hares running around in the landscape with a lot of different plant species. The presence of mastodons was particularly noteworthy, never having been found so far north before.
The DNA discovery of the scientist has also given researchers more information about the adaptability of species. The mastodon was an elephant relative that roamed North and Central America until its extinction alongside many other large Ice Age mammals roughly 10,000 years ago.
Two million years ago, Greenland had temperatures 11 to 17 degrees warmer than today, but at its latitude, the sun doesn’t set in summer nor rise in winter.