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Scientists extract extensive data from 1.77 million-year-old rhino tooth

Using mass spectrometry and a new technique based on the emerging field of proteomics, scientists have been able to retrieve extensive data from a 1.77 million-year-old rhino tooth. (Photograph: Etienne Outram/Shutterstock)

Wed. 25. September 2019


COPENHAGEN, Denmark: In a discovery that may help reconstruct the evolution of many current and extinct species in a totally new way, scientists have extracted genetic information from a 1.77 million-year-old rhino tooth using a new molecular method. This advancement has allowed for the largest ever genetic data set that is this old to be confidently recorded. Researchers acknowledge that it will herald an exciting new chapter in the study of molecular evolution.

The findings by scientists from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen and from St John’s College at the University of Cambridge, among other institutions, may help solve some of the biggest mysteries of ancient animal and human biology and mark a breakthrough in the field of ancient molecular studies. “We have been able to find a way to retrieve genetic information that is more informative and reliable than any other source of comparable age before, and it’s from a material that is abundant in the fossil records so the potential of the application of this approach is extensive,” said co-author Prof. Jesper Velgaard Olsen, head of the Mass Spectrometry for Quantitative Proteomics Group at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research at the University of Copenhagen.

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Using protein sequencing, based on  a groundbreaking technology using mass spectrometry, the researchers extracted protein remains of dental enamel from the fossil tooth, which was discovered in Dmanisi in Georgia. This method allowed for genetic information that was previously unobtainable using DNA sequencing to be retrieved. “With the new, protein-sequencing-based method the possibilities of genetic information have been stretched beyond ancient DNA,” noted Olsen.

The breakthrough also means that genetic information from species such as Homo erectus may now also be able to be retrieved. Until now this was not possible because the remains were too old and too poorly preserved for DNA to survive. “This research is a game-changer that opens up a lot of opportunities for further evolutionary studies in terms of humans as well as mammals. It will revolutionise the methods of investigating evolution based on molecular markers and it will open a complete new field of ancient molecular studies,” said co-author Prof. Eske Willerslev, who holds the Prince Philip Chair in Ecology and Evolution in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge and heads the Willerslev Group of the Section for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.

The study, titled “Early Pleistocene enamel proteome from Dmanisi resolves Stephanorhinus phylogeny”, was published online on 11 September 2019 in Nature, ahead of inclusion in an issue.

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