The first sequence of an entire ancient human genome is published in Nature.
Remember how excited you were when you saw Jurassic Park and you first considered the possibility that you could recreate an extinct species from a piece of well preserved DNA? The small issue of getting from a piece of DNA to a fully functional living creature without sexual reproduction was of course only considered later. Nevertheless, all is not lost.
This article was published in the University Times.
This month in the prestigious science research journal Nature, a team of evolutionary biologists, led by the Dane Eske Willerslev, have become the first to sequence an entire ancient human genome. This exciting work has overcome the difficulties associated with obtaining good quality ancient DNA that is free of contaminating modern human DNA, and in the process the team have presented us with a picture of what this ancient human may have looked like. As an added bonus the work also solves a long running debate among evolutionary biologists and ethnologists regarding migration patterns into the New World.
An accompanying biographical article in Nature describes that Willerslev had long suspected he would find well preserved ancient human hair in the frozen permafrost of Greenland. He would never have guessed that in the end his sample would come from just around the corner in Copenhagen, Denmark. An excavation in Greenland by another Dane in 1983 had recovered that which Willerslev had so desperately sought, a small tuft of hair from a 4000 year old Paleo-Eskimo of the Greenland based Saqqaq culture. The sample had been sitting idly in the basement of the Natural History Museum of Denmark for twenty years, just waiting for Willerslev and his team of DNA sequencers.
Aside from the excitement of being the first to completely sequence an ancient human being, Willerslev’s work also gives us a snapshot into who this man was and how he may have appeared. By sequencing 80% of the three billion base pairs of DNA twenty times over, a standard twice as rigorous as that applied to the Human Genome Project, Willerslev not only cracked the ancient human code, but he was also able to get personal. The original owner of the hair and the DNA, now affectionately named Inuk, was most likely a dark skinned, dark haired man with A+ blood, a propensity for baldness, and teeth that morphologically resemble those of people of Asian or Native American descent. No doubt, as we begin to understand more about our own DNA and the function of the genes it codes for, we will be able to go back to Inuk’s DNA for comparison, and infer even more physical characteristics. It may even be possible to one day determine characteristics of his personality and his lifestyle.
Even more exciting to evolutionary biologists was that Inuk’s DNA sequence was able to solve a long running debate regarding the migration of the Saqqaq people into Greenland. By comparing the DNA to that of various ethnic and cultural groups geographically related to Greenland, Willerslev’s work shows that the Saqqaq are not the ancient descendants of modern Inuit groups, and that they are not descended from native Americans who might have migrated into Greenland. Instead the Saqqaq are most closely related to the Chukchis people of Siberia. The genetic divergence between the two groups probably occurred just prior to the Saqqaq migration that would have seen them travel across the Bering Strait, despite there being no land bridge at this point in time, and across Alaska and Canada, to Greenland.
Whilst the conclusions regarding the migration patterns of the Saqqaq people no doubt solves an ancient riddle, for many of us the most impressive feature of this discovery lies in the method and the possible future applications and implications of this technology. Willerslev hopes to apply his methods to other human remains around the planet but admits that it will be difficult to extract good quality uncontaminated DNA from samples that have not been preserved by permafrost. Nevertheless there is a real hope that more mysteries will be solved about where we came from and who we were. And just maybe, somewhere down the track, there might even be room for a dinosaur as a pet.
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