Brussels, 23 Apr 2003
Danish scientists have discovered the oldest DNA to date in the permafrost of northeast Siberia.
A team of scientists from the Zoological Museum in Copenhagen drilled cores ranging from two to 30 metres in the frozen ground between the Kolyma and Lena rivers of Siberia. They found that the samples taken from the earth contained plant and animal DNA dating between 300,000 and 400,000 years old.
This is a groundbreaking discovery about ecosystem history, according to Eske Willerslev, the molecular biologist who the led the study. 'We have shown that it is not necessary to have obvious macrofossils in order to obtain genetic information about past ecosystems,' he said.
Indeed, there have been previous claims that the oldest DNA has been found in preserved ancient bacteria or even dinosaurs bones. However, such claims have been discredited by the presence of new DNA, which has contaminated the samples stored in museums.
The Danish breakthrough provides a new technique in examining past plant and animal life. The team will continue their work in other permafrost regions as well as warmer climates to determine whether DNA has survived there.