The genomes of giant Ice Age animals were reconstructed thanks to a new technique that may advance our understanding of ancient humans.
Scientists used next-generation DNA sequencers to reconstruct the genome of an ancient cave bear and large horse that roamed Earth about 800,000 years ago. The genomes, which contain the mammals’ hereditary information, are ten times older than any others found so far.
“These techniques mean we can study evolutionary pathways and the relationships between long-extinct creatures and their modern counterparts,” said Ludovic Orlando, professor of genetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen. Orlando’s team was able to build the genome of a horse that lived in modern-day Yukon Territory in Canada up to 780,000 years ago, the Sunday Times reports.
Orlando’s findings allowed his group to find the predecessor of modern horses, donkeys and zebras that lived between 4 and 4.5 million years ago. Researchers hope the new technique will allow them to make similar findings for animals that existed during the Pleistocene epoch, which ran from 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago.
Even though the remains were found in warmer climates, which usually leads to decomposition, researchers were able to rely on the cell’s mitochondria which remained preserved.
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“Our results prove that authentic ancient DNA can be preserved for hundreds of thousand years outside of permafrost," researchers wrote in the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
A separate group of researchers used the same technique to reconstruct the genome of a giant bear found in northern Spain that lived 400,000 years ago. Scientists plan to present their findings at a meeting this week at the Royal Society in London on DNA mapping.
The technique may lead to new studies on ancient humans, scientists say.
"Neanderthals are an obvious target because they were our nearest relative," Erika Hagelberg, professor of evolutionary biology at Oslo University in Norway, said. "There are a lot of samples so we can now start looking at them in detail, including how their genes have been passed down to modern humans," she added.