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‘Game-changing’ discovery of world’s oldest DNA could hold key to combating climate change

Scientists believe that the discovery of the oldest DNA in the world, which dates back to two million years ago, could help counter global warming.

The discovery of microscopic fragments in sediment over 20,000 years old in northern Greenland opened a new chapter in evolution’s history.

It enabled the DNA to survive in extreme climate change and beat the previous record of samples taken from Siberian mammoth bones by one million years.

These newly discovered samples are inadvertent and only a few millimetres long. They come from a time when Greenland’s climate was warmer, between Arctic and temperate, and 10-17C warmer today.


They were discovered in the Kobenhavn formation, a sedimentary deposit that is almost 100m thick, and hidden within the Arctic Ocean’s mouth.

Scientists discovered evidence of plants, microorganisms and animals, including reindeer and hares and the elephant-like mastodon (the Ice Age mammal and not , the social media platform).

Professor Eske Willerslev was the leader of the team. He stated: “DNA can quickly degrade, but we have shown that under the right conditions, we can now travel back further in the past than anyone could ever imagine.”

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How did the DNA’s secrets be unlocked?

Researchers were able to use 41 of the Ice Age-era sample samples.

They had to be removed from the clay and quartz they were buried in, after having been preserved by permafrost or ice and left untouched by humans.

The samples were eventually compared to extensive DNA libraries from modern organisms through the efforts of dozens of researchers across the globe.

This is how they were able find evidence of the predecessors of the species we now know, creating a picture that shows a stage in evolution previously unknown.

Although some samples were taken in 2006 on a previous expedition to the Arctic, the DNA was only extracted using new equipment that has been developed over the years.

Image: Organic material found in coastal deposits showing trace evidence of rich plant flora, and insect fauna. Pic: Professor Kurt H Kjaer
Image: Freshly thawed Moss from the Permafrost Coast Deposits. Pic: Professor Nicolaj K Larsen

Can the findings save species from climate change

This discovery is notable for its most striking feature: DNA’s ability to survive in changing environments.

Mikkel W. Pedersen, assistant professor, stated that there is “no current-day equivalent” to the historical ecosystem where the DNA was extracted.

He said, “On the surface, it seems that the climate was similar to the climate we will see on our planet in future due to global heating.”

Prof Pedersen said, “The data suggest that more species are capable of evolving and adapting to extreme temperatures than was previously believed.”

“But, most importantly, these results demonstrate that they require time to accomplish this.

“The rapid pace of today’s global heating means that organisms and species don’t have the time necessary to adapt, so the climate emergency continues to be a major threat for biodiversity and the entire world.”

Image: Two million year-old trunk of a larch tree, still in permafrost. Pic: Professor Svend Funder

“The possibilities are endless”

Professor Kurt H Kjaer from the University of Copenhagen is a geology expert and suggested that genetic engineering could help replicate the strategy that enabled plants and trees to survive in rising temperatures two million years ago.

He said, “This is why this scientific breakthrough is so important – because it could reveal ways to counteract the devastating effect of global warming.”

Next, we could explore potential rich deposits of ancient DNA within warm and humid environments.

Prof Willerslev called the possibilities “endless”.

He said, “If we can start to explore ancient DNA within clay grains from Africa we may be in a position to gather ground-breaking data about the origins of many different species.”

“Perhaps even more knowledge about the first human beings and their ancestors.”

These findings were published in Nature.


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