Record set thanks to ancient DNA 2 million years old

DNA breaks down over time, so the older it is, the smaller the fragments become until there is nothing left to detect. And the shorter the fragments, the more difficult it is to attribute them to certain groups of plants or animals.

“The massive damage clearly showed that it was ancient DNA,” says Willerslev, who says he and his colleagues started working on the Greenland samples in 2006. [species] you find are not necessarily very similar to what you see today.”

The Danish team says the DNA they found was preserved at low temperatures and because it was bound to clay and quartz, which also slows down the degradation process.

How far back researchers can look remains an open question. “We may be close to the limit, but who knows,” says Tyler Murchi, a researcher at McMaster University who is developing methods for studying ancient DNA. He notes that the Dutch researchers were able to combine several methods to “create a robust reconstruction of this ecosystem.”

Willerslev once predicted that it would be impossible to reconstruct the DNA of anything that lived more than a million years ago. Now that he’s broken the record, he doesn’t want to say where the limit lies. “I wouldn’t be surprised if… we can go back twice as far,” he says. But I wouldn’t guarantee it.

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