Scientists working in Canada have discovered the genome of an ancient horse that is 10 times older than any previously found genetic materials and dates back at least 4 million years.
A report in the journal Nature
says the material extracted from the toe bone of a 700,000-year-old horse fossil may help reconstruct the path of evolution over millions of years.
The discovery has already led scientists to determine that the horse species is more than 4 million years old, or more than twice as old as previously thought. By comparing the ancient DNA to that of a horse that lived 43,000 years ago and one that lives today, biologists working on the scientific team found that the Equus genus, responsible for today's horses, donkeys and zebras, roamed the earth at least four million year ago.
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Researchers Duane Froese of Canada's University of Alberta along with Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen discovered the hind toe bone. It had been buried in layers of permafrost, keeping it at optimum conditions — both cold and dry — to preserve its secrets. It was located in Thistle Creek in theYukon Territory's famed Klondike gold mines.
"We have beaten the time barrier," evolutionary biologist Ludovic Orlando said. "All of a sudden you have access to many more extinct species than you could have ever dreamed of sequencing before."
While the chemicals in DNA start to break down after an animal dies, enough of the ancient specimen was available to study. What scientists discovered was a wide range of traits that were described as far more fragmented than other horse specimens from the ice age and the same region — leading them to conclude this new sample was far older.
Previously, the oldest genome recovered by scientists was a Denisovan human which was on the Earth 70,000 years ago. Researchers told the New York Times
that the new horse DNA marks a key advancement in the work of paleogenomics, an emerging field of science that has become a key partner to paleontology. Paleogenomics is the study of genomes found in fossil bones.
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