The Hunt for the Oldest Mammoth DNA in Europe
Will 200,000-year-old mammoth teeth from Suffolk contain DNA?
By Dr. Simon Jackson, Collections and Learning Curator, Ipswich Museums
This is what we hope to find out from specimens held at Ipswich Museum. The research is being led by Centre for Palaeogenetics researcher, Professor Love Dalén and Natural History Museum mammoth expert, Professor Adrian Lister, collaborating with the Museum. If found, it would be the oldest mammoth DNA in Europe and could potentially unlock secrets of mammoth evolution and adaption.
So, you’ve probably heard about DNA, possibly in the context of bringing dinosaurs back to life through the Jurassic Park franchise, or genetically engineering mammoths (or actually cold resistant elephants1). But what exactly is it? It is often referred to as a ‘blueprint’ for life – more correctly, it contains the genetic information about how an organism will look and function. Whether it’s the colour of their hair, or how large it will be, the DNA holds this information, carried in sections called genes.
Unfortunately, DNA is fragile and, in most environments, degrades very quickly following an organism’s death. Cold environments such as permafrost (frozen ground) preserve bodies and their DNA for longer – indeed, you may have come across the frozen mammoth carcasses from Siberia (for example, the mammoth calf, Lyuba). Last year, the Centre for Palaeogenetics team reported the preservation of DNA in mammoth teeth more than a million years old, from such a frozen environment – revealing much of the genome, (the complete set of genetic material) of the animals2– previously the oldest such data recovered were from a horse specimen less than 800,000 years in age.
However, there is an indication that DNA might preserve better than we thought in warmer environments, including temperate conditions. From sites in Germany dating to as old as 240,000 years ago, researchers reported in 2017 the preservation of DNA belonging to the extinct, straight-tusked elephant3. What is surprising is that these remains come from interglacials – so the warmer and wetter phases of the ice age (over the last 800,000 years, the cold conditions that you might expect from the ice age have been interrupted by at least 6 of these warmer and wetter interglacials).
So, this got the Centre for Palaeogenetics team thinking – could we find other elephant DNA in warmer environments? Well quite possibly. I learnt about this exciting project from Professor Adrian Lister and we enthusiastically discussed the possibility of searching in the rich 200,000 year old Suffolk remains of mammoths (more specifically steppe mammoths) held at Ipswich Museum for the presence of DNA – Suffolk being a hotspot for this period. Professor Lister, well acquainted with researching our collections4 , was able to advise on the most suitable samples that we could consider for the analysis.
Sampling for DNA, is a little destructive, however. But we are removing only about 1 cm³, the equivalent of a few grams, from the root of each tooth for each analysis – the bottom part which is least likely to be displayed or analysed for research. With the thumbs up from the Museum working group and the Ipswich Borough Council – Ipswich Museum treasures all its objects and takes this sort of sampling very seriously indeed – we could begin with the study. And we are only looking at 9 teeth, part of a much, much larger collection held at the Museum.
As I come into the converted meeting room marked “No Entry – DNA Sampling in Progress ” I am confronted by the whirring of a dentist’s drill and the distinct whiff of bleach. Postdoctoral Researcher, from the Centre for Palaeogenetics, Dr Camilo Chacón-Duque, sits at the table, dressed in his brilliant white lab coat, donning 2 pairs of sky-blue nitrile gloves and clenching tightly in his left hand a black drill and firmly in his right hand the grinding tooth or molar of a young mammoth. Small smoky clouds rise up from the tooth as he whirs the drill back-and-forth gently. He explains to me, slightly muffled through his mask, that this is a good sign and might indicate the presence of collagen and therefore perhaps even DNA…
Dr Chacón-Duque explains the importance of not contaminating the samples – and in particular not transferring possible DNA from one tooth to another, and therefore mixing up the genetic material. Hence, the 2 pairs of gloves that he wears and the fact that he changes the blades between the samples.
Whilst there is DNA from UK mammoths dating to around 50,000 years ago, no mammoth DNA has been found as far back as 200,000 years from anywhere in Europe. But what else do we hope to find out? The teeth could provide insights into mammoth evolution and particularly how the evolution of this particular species, the steppe mammoth in Britain some 200,000 years ago, fits in with the broader picture of mammoth evolution and its relationship with the Woolly Mammoth, the last species to live. Interestingly, the at least 1 million year old teeth from the permafrost revealed a completely unknown lineage of mammoths. The DNA could also tell us something about the adaptions that the mammoths had to their environment – including investigation of genes involved in hair growth and particular types of fat deposits. So, the DNA may help us to understand what our British steppe mammoth at the time looked like, as well as shedding light on their ancestry.
The Woolly Mammoth model at Ipswich Museum. The preservation of ancient DNA in our steppe mammoth samples could yield insights into the appearance of our species and how hairy it may have been.
Of course, whether or not we will find DNA is highly uncertain. But the specimens will be given considerable time and analysis at the Centre for Palaeogenetics. Samples will be processed in the state-of-the-art, cleanroom laboratory with powerful computers equipped for dealing with vast amounts of ancient DNA data.
These now lifeless fossils could provide key insights – through the discovery of DNA – to the evolution and adaption of British steppe mammoths. Secrets of the mammoths may be revealed…
The mammoth teeth samples which will be analysed by the Centre of Palaeogenetics for ancient DNA
- Read more about the project being undertaken by Colossal Laboratories and Biosciences Woolly Mammoth De-extinction Project & Process | Colossal
- Van der Valk, T., Pečnerová, P., Díez-del-Molino, D., Bergström, A., Oppenheimer, J., Hartmann, S., Xenikoudakis, G., Thomas, J.A., Dehasque, M., Sağlıcan, E., Fidan, F.R., Barnes, I., Liu, S., Somel, M., Heintzman, P.D., Nikolskiy, P., Shapiro, B., Skoglund, P., Hofreiter, M., Lister, A.M., Götherström, A. and Dalén, L. 2021. Million-year-old DNA sheds light on the genomic history of mammoths. Nature, 591(7849), pp.265-269.
- Meyer, M., Palkopoulou, E., Baleka, S., Stiller, M., Penkman, K.E.H., Alt, K.W., Ishida, Y., Mania, D., Mallick, S., Meijer, T., Meller, H., Nagel, S., Nickel, B., Ostritz, S., Rohland, N., Schauer, K., Schüler, T., Roca, A.L., Reich, D., Shapiro, B. and Hofreiter, M. 2017. Palaeogenomes of Eurasian straight-tusked elephants challenge the current view of elephant evolution. Elife, 6, p.e25413.
- Professor Lister’s research on mammoth remains at Ipswich Museum include studies on the Romanian mammoth, the first European mammoth – the only UK remains of which are at Ipswich Museum. Reference: Lister, A. M., & van Essen, H. (2003). Mammuthus rumanus (Ştefănescu), the earliest mammoth in Europe. Advanc. in Vertebr. Paleont.«Hen to Panta». Bucharest, 47-52.