Ancient environmental DNA reveals a 2-million-year-old thriving life in Greenland

A “breakthrough” has been made in understanding the history of our planet. Studying ancient environmental DNA, a team of researchers has now traced and mapped the evolution of biological communities that existed about two million years ago (mya).

To date, the scientific understanding of the ancient biological life forms on Earth has been greatly built The Oldest environmental DNA available, which was taken from the woolly mammoth Gap in the Siberian tundra around 1 mya. But a team of researchers has now sampled and interpreted DNA from sedimentary clays and quartz deposits taken from Greenland’s permafrost dating back about two million mya.

Building on this new study of ancient environmental DNA, the team of researchers has provided a detailed picture of life in a two-million-year-old (Myo) environment, describing it as “far from the icy shores of the Arctic Circle.” But more importantly, they believe their new techniques and methodologies may She soon sheds light on the ancient origins of humans.

A two-million-year-old stump of a pine tree is still stuck in the permafrost within the coastal sediments. The tree was carried out to sea by rivers that eroded the former forest landscape. (Professor Svend is funded / nature)

Stare through a wormhole in time

A new paper published in the journal Nature explores the ancient ecosystem through the results of an analysis of “the oldest ancient environmental DNA recovered to date,” anywhere. The samples were all taken in northern Greenland, and the study revealed animal and plant species that roamed these northern regions nearly two mya.

The new paper’s author, geneticist Esk Willerslev of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, Says The new research opens “a new chapter that extends to an additional million years of history.” As a result of this new study, scientists can now “take a direct look at the DNA of a previous ecosystem going back in time,” Eske added.

Professor Eske Willerslev and a colleague sample a sediment of environmental DNA in Greenland.  (Courtesy of NOVA, HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, and a handful of movies/nature)

Professor Eske Willerslev and a colleague sample a sediment of environmental DNA in Greenland. (Courtesy of NOVA, HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, and a handful of films/ nature)

Revolutionary Steps in Environmental DNA Analysis

Ancient environmental DNA has been identified in samples taken in the Kapp Copenhaven Formation, located in Berryland, northern Greenland. This area is often described as a “polar desert” and is famous for its rare fossils dating back to Neogene period 23.03 million years ago (mya) to the beginning of the current Quaternary Era 2.58 mya.

Despite this, because “vertebrate” fossils are so rare in the Arctic, researchers have always struggled to obtain samples that reveal new data about ancient biological communities. Eske explains that all previous research has suggested that the Kap København Formation area around 2-3 mya experienced a warmer climate with “warmer temperatures of 11 to 19 degrees Celsius today”. But the new research was built around DNA extracted and sequenced “from 41 organic-rich sediment samples taken from 5 different sites within the Cap Copenhaven Formation.”

Freshly thawed algae from coastal permafrost sediments.  The moss originates from the river erosion that cut through the landscape of Kapp Copenhaven some two million years ago.  (Professor Nikolai K. Larsen / Nature)

Freshly thawed algae from coastal permafrost sediments. The moss originates from the river erosion that cut through the landscape of Kapp Copenhaven some two million years ago. (Professor Nikolai K. Larsen/ nature)

Mapping the two ecosystems of MYO

Geologist Kurt Kjaer of the University of Copenhagen Explain Most of the samples were taken many years ago during other research projects. It was not until “a new generation of DNA extraction and sequencing equipment was developed” that very small, damaged fragments of DNA in sediment samples could be analyzed to enable “the new map of a two-million-year-old ecosystem”.

The new model of the Greenland polar region around 2 mya shows an ancient ecosystem thriving with ferns and animals. The open boreal forest was filled with “a mixed vegetation of poplars, birches, and sedges, as well as a variety of arctic and boreal shrubs and grasses”. Moreover, mitochondrial DNA allowed the researchers to build a picture of wildlife from the ground up.

On a microscopic scale, DNA has been identified from microorganisms, fungi, and the ancient world was inhabited by ants and fleas. On the other end of the spectrum, giant mastodons roamed among reindeer, ferrets, and geese, and until this study it was thought that mastodons didn’t extend as far north as Greenland. Then, in areas that were once ancient seas, scientists recovered DNA from the Atlantic horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus).

Find old assets

In conclusion, the authors propose their data points toward “Earth’s future in the face of climate change”. What they mean here is that they now have insights into the ability of different species to adapt to changing environments caused by rising temperatures. The new information found suggests that over time, “more species can evolve and adapt to wildly varying temperatures than previously thought,” said Mikkel Pedersen, a geneticist from the University of Copenhagen.

In the opening sentence, this new research is described as a “breakthrough.” Why is that? Now that ancient environmental DNA has been extracted from clay and quartz samples, and successfully analyzed, the new technique can now be turned toward deposits from other locations around the world. “The possibilities are endless,” Wellerslev said, and that if the new method is applied in Africa, scientists may soon gather “groundbreaking information about the origin and ancestry of early humans.”

DNA ancient origins

Top image: Reconstruction of the Cape Copenhaven Formation two million years ago at a time when the temperature was noticeably warmer than far north Greenland today. source: Zaiken’s house / nature

Written by Ashley Coe


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