HELSINKI - From a tiny fossil bone found in the frozen Yukon, scientists have deciphered the genetic code of a horse 700,000 years old, nearly 10 times older than any other animal that has had its genome mapped.
Scientists used new techniques and computing to take DNA from a 5-inch fossil fragment and get a good genetic picture of the ancestral horse. The work was published Wednesday in the journal Nature and discussed at a science conference in Helsinki.
The research gives a better insight into the evolution of one of the most studied mammals. Perhaps more important, it opens up new possibilities for mapping the genetic blueprints of all sorts of ancient animals, said study lead authors Ludovic Orlando and Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen.
This "is breaking the time barrier," Willerslev said.
The previous oldest animal fossil genetically mapped was an ancient relative of Neanderthals from about 75,000 years ago, found in a Siberian cave.
The ancient horse was probably about the size of current Arabian horses, the researchers said.
The new mapping techniques may eventually allow researchers to map animal genomes from 1 million years ago, Orlando said.
Analysis also found new evidence that an endangered animal called the Przewalski's horse, found in Mongolia and China, is the last surviving wild horse.