1.7 Million-Year-Old Rhino DNA a ‘Game-Changer’ for Evolutionary Study

Scientists identified an almost complete set of proteins in the dental enamel of an extinct rhino, which lived in what is now Georgia during the Pleistocene period. (Natural History Museum of Denmark)

(CN) – The tooth of an extinct rhino provides a glimpse into life in Eurasia on a different Earth, but the proteins within the tooth also present researchers data from 1.7 million years ago and shed light on evolutionary sequences further back than previously studied.

Researchers in a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature say their ability to extract genetic information from the tooth is a breakthrough in the field of ancient biomolecular study.

In a statement, lead author Eske Willerslev from the University of Cambridge said the research is a game-changer and could provide new means of exploring human evolution, which covers only the last 400,000 years. According to the researchers, more than 90% of the evolutionary path that led to modern humans is unknown.

Enrico Cappellini, professor from the University of Copenhagen, added: “This new analysis of ancient proteins from dental enamel will start an exciting new chapter in the study of molecular evolution.”

That’s because DNA data can provide information about genetic links between extinct species. The study offers that this could help solve important questions about animal and human biology and provide future researchers with the ability to reconstruct evolution from further back in time than previously possible.

The dental enamel taken from the extinct rhino species is 1 million years older than the oldest DNA sequenced from a 700,000-year-old horse, according to the study from the University of Copenhagen and St John’s College, University of Cambridge.

Researchers used mass spectrometry-based protein sequencing that provides a robust and accurate amount of information from such a small amount of protein, said Jesper Olsen from University of Copenhagen, and co-corresponding author on the paper.

Tooth enamel is the hardest material found in mammals and by studying its makeup scientists could revolutionize studies of evolution by cracking the DNA of extinct animals, the researchers said in the study.

Using extinct DNA proteins provides answers to questions that may have not been present in previous research studies and the team behind the study are already using their technique in new research.

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