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Scientists Map 700,000-Year-Old Horse Genome

In this undated photo provided by Ludovic Orlando via 'Nature,' two pieces of a 700,000-year-old horse metapodial bone, just before being extracted for ancient DNA, are shown. (AP Photo/Ludovic Orlando via Nature)
In this undated photo provided by Ludovic Orlando via 'Nature,' two pieces of a 700,000-year-old horse metapodial bone, just before being extracted for ancient DNA, are shown. (AP Photo/Ludovic Orlando via Nature)

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Scientists have mapped the genetic code of a horse about 700,000 years old, making it the oldest mapped genome of any animal by 10 times.

The scientists used a tiny fossil found in the Canadian Yukon, and while most of the fossil was contaminated with modern bacteria, they were still able to get a good genetic picture of the ancient horse. Scientists said that for every 200 DNA molecules extracted from the fossil, only one belonged to the horse.

While the findings add to what is already known about ancient horses, the techniques employed could be used to map many other types of ancient animals, mastodons, bison and mammoths to early humans, lead authors Ludovic Orlando and Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen told the Associated Press.

This "is breaking the time barrier," Willerslev said.

The 700,000-year-old horse was probably about the size of modern-day Arabian horses, researchers said, but the horse probably lacked the genes for large muscles needed for racing.

Previously, the oldest animal fossil genetically mapped was from 75,000 years ago. That fossil was of a relative of Neanderthals and was found in a Siberian cave.

Scientists believe the new laboratory techniques may allow them to map animal genomes up to one million years ago and does not necessarily have to be used on fossils found in cold climates.

Ross MacPhee, curator of mammals at the American Museum of Natural History, who wasn't part of the research, told the Associated Press "there's no reason in substance why we couldn't go back further."

And while there is hope the techniques could be used to map an ancient hominid, Orlando and Willerslev said most ancient human fossils are found in Africa where the climate is warm, and that makes the DNA deteriorate more quickly.

The work was published Wednesday in the journal Nature and discussed at a science conference in Helsinki.

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Comment Sorting
by: John P. Tarver from: California
June 28, 2013 12:03 PM
When drawing conclusions from DNA one must consider the baseline of the global geological fossil record. From the fossil record we know that species occur rapidly following a mass extinction, the opposite of evolution. Therefore the speculation of this article can not be true. Perhaps it is just more social Darwinism pretending to be science?
In Response

by: Peter
June 28, 2013 2:19 PM
Tell me, what exactly does 'social Darwinism' have to do with science or evolution? It's an analogy to likening natural selection to the structure of a society or polity. It's not unusual that someone bent on denying evolutionary science would be unaware of that distinction.
In Response

by: Gavin from: Seattle
June 28, 2013 1:37 PM
Evolutionary theory predicts rapid speciation after a mass extinction. Do you know what Social Darwinism is? Because it doesn't have much to do with 700,000 year old horses.

by: Curly from: USA
June 28, 2013 11:37 AM
This would be a great chance to resurrect this species by making a fertilized egg and a host for the gestation. That would be a great leap forward in the understanding of the past.

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