Oldest Known DNA Uncovers Mysteries in Greenland

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The new advances in technologies regarding DNA have pushed many discoveries in the past few years. In December 2022, a groundbreaking finding has been revealed. The two million-year-old microscopic DNA fragments found in frozen soil in Greenland are now the oldest DNA ever obtained. They gave a new perspective on the possibilities of ancient DNA available for us to discover. Discoveries like this can suggest many things about past ecosystems as well as developments over time that cannot be obtained otherwise.

Given current circumstances, we still have limited knowledge about such old DNA fragments. They can reveal information that is not offered by fossils, the common method to obtain information about past organisms. Judging by the damage in the oldest DNA we’ve found, it seems like it’s nearly impossible to find ones from more than five million years ago. This latest discovery proved that DNA can survive longer than scientists previously thought. They concluded that the DNA molecules tend to stay close to minerals that protect them from damage, such as feldspar and clay. This information might lead scientists to find more DNA in other parts of the world preserved in similar conditions. The Kap Kobenhavn formation is frozen mud and sand from 2 million years ago. So what does this new discovery tell us about Kap Kobenhavn and the ancient ecosystems of Greenland? 

An artwork depicting Kap Kobenhavn formation in Greenland two million years ago (Photo credit: Beth Zaikenjpg)

Northeastern Greenland contains barren land with barely any organisms living there. However, the DNA samples showed that it was completely different two million years ago. The DNA sequences found were compared to modern organisms’ genomes, and the detected samples of organisms we recognize can tell us many things. There were poplar, spruce, and yew trees that are not commonly found in high altitudes like Greenland’s. There were also modern species including rodents, geese, and rabbits. Other species found there such as reindeer and mastodons held even more surprises. Mastodons lived in North American forests as far as we knew, and reindeer were not expected to be part of the ecosystem at that time. This shows that some species roamed further than we thought they did. 

Furthermore, the marine species discovered such as horseshoe crabs and green algae indicated a warmer climate as well as warmer surrounding waters. Due to global warming, we might face similar climates in just a few years’ time. There are many things that can be learned from the DNA obtained. Because of the way the DNA samples are preserved, they can’t be used to clone an organism. However, they can be used to genetically modify organisms to be better suited to the warm climate in the near future. 

Not only do the DNA samples offer information, but they might also provide a solution to the arising problems in our world. Professor Eske Willerslev, the lead researcher of this project, says: “We may be able to gather ground-breaking information about the origin of many different species—perhaps even new knowledge about the first humans and their ancestors—the possibilities are endless.” With more and more discoveries like this, clearer pictures of our past and future will be revealed. 

Works Cited:

  • “2 Million-Year-Old DNA, the Oldest-Ever, Uncovers Greenland’s Lost World.” NewsBytes, www.newsbytesapp.com/news/science/2-million-year-old-dna-found-in-greenland-permafrost/story. Accessed 24 Feb. 2023.
  • Callaway, Ewen. “Oldest-Ever DNA Shows Mastodons Roamed Greenland 2 Million Years Ago.” Nature, 7 Dec. 2022, www.nature.com/articles/d41586-022-04377-x. Accessed 24 Feb. 2023.
  • Dunham, Will. “Oldest DNA on Record – 2 Million Years – Reveals Greenland’s Lost World.” Reuters, 7 Dec. 2022, www.reuters.com/lifestyle/science/oldest-dna-record-2-million-years-reveals-greenlands-lost-world-2022-12-07/. Accessed 24 Feb. 2023. ‌

This column was submitted by high school student Iris Wang. Student STEM Columns are submitted by high school or advanced middle school students who wish to share their passion for STEM. Students interested in submitting a column should email us at info@areteem.org.

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