The world’s oldest DNA has been discovered, scientists announced in a new study.

The world’s oldest DNA has been discovered, scientists announced in a new study.
The DNA, which is about 1.2 million years old, was recovered from two specimens of steppe mammoth, a predecessor to the more well-known woolly mammoth. Until now, the oldest DNA came from a horse that lived in Canada’s Yukon territory about 700,000 years ago.
By way of comparison, our species, Homo sapiens, first appeared roughly 300,000 years ago.
“This DNA is incredibly old. The samples are a thousand times older than Viking remains, and even predate the existence of humans and Neanderthals,” said study lead author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, in a news release.
The DNA came from the molars of mammoth specimens from the Early and Middle Pleistocene subepochs from northeast Siberia. The teeth had been buried for over a million years in the Siberian permafrost.
Extracting the DNA from the samples was “challenging”, the scientists said, adding that only minute amounts of DNA remained in the samples and that the DNA was degraded into very small fragments.
The mammoth specimens were first uncovered in the 1970s, and since then, were stored in Moscow’s Russian Academy of Sciences.
The mammoth was not actually a woolly mammoth: around one million years ago there were no woolly mammoths, as they had not yet evolved. This was the time of their predecessor, the ancient steppe mammoth, a species from Europe that scientists believe predated both woolly mammoths and Columbian mammoths, a North American species.
The DNA is helping to sort out the genetic history of mammoths and how they migrated and evolved around the world, scientists said. In addition, the study provides new insights into when and how fast mammoths adapted to cold climates.
The new results also open the door for future studies on other species, researchers say. About one million years ago, many animal species expanded across the globe, according to the study. This was also a time period of major changes in climate and sea levels, as well as the last time that Earth’s magnetic poles changed places.
Because of this, the researchers think that genetic analyses on this timescale have great potential to explore a wide range of scientific questions.
“One of the big questions now is how far back in time we can go,” said Anders Götherström, a professor in molecular archaeology and joint research leader at the Centre for Palaeogenetics.
“We haven’t reached the limit yet,” Götherström said. “An educated guess would be that we could recover DNA that is two million years old, and possibly go even as far back as 2.6 million. Before that, there was no permafrost where ancient DNA could have been preserved.”
The study was published in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature.
Additional reporting by Reuters