It is nothing short of a world record in DNA research that scientists at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark (University of Copenhagen) have hit. They have sequenced the so far oldest genome from a prehistoric creature. They have done so by sequencing and analyzing short pieces of DNA molecules preserved in bone-remnants from a horse that had been kept frozen for the last 700.000 years in the permafrost of Yukon, Canada. By tracking the genomic changes that transformed prehistoric wild horses into domestic breeds, the researchers have revealed the genetic make-up of modern horses with unprecedented details. The spectacular results are now published in the international scientific journal Nature.
First, by comparing the genome in the 700,000 year old horse with the genome of a 43,000 year old horse, six present day horses and the donkey the researchers could estimate how fast mutations accumulate through time and calibrate a genome-wide mutation rate. This revealed that the last common ancestor of all modern equids was living about 4.0-4.5 million years ago. Therefore, the evolutionary radiation underlying the origin of horses, donkeys and zebras reaches back in time twice as long as previously thought. Additionally, this new clock revealed multiple episodes of severe demographic fluctuation in horse history, in phase with major climatic changes such as the Last Glacial Maximum, some 20,000 years ago.I'll add the paper abstract later.
Nature (2013) doi:10.1038/nature12323
Recalibrating Equus evolution using the genome sequence of an early Middle Pleistocene horse
Ludovic Orlando et al.
The rich fossil record of equids has made them a model for evolutionary processes1. Here we present a 1.12-times coverage draft genome from a horse bone recovered from permafrost dated to approximately 560–780 thousand years before present (kyr BP)2, 3. Our data represent the oldest full genome sequence determined so far by almost an order of magnitude. For comparison, we sequenced the genome of a Late Pleistocene horse (43?kyr BP), and modern genomes of five domestic horse breeds (Equus ferus caballus), a Przewalski’s horse (E. f. przewalskii) and a donkey (E. asinus). Our analyses suggest that the Equus lineage giving rise to all contemporary horses, zebras and donkeys originated 4.0–4.5?million years before present (Myr BP), twice the conventionally accepted time to the most recent common ancestor of the genus Equus4, 5. We also find that horse population size fluctuated multiple times over the past 2?Myr, particularly during periods of severe climatic changes. We estimate that the Przewalski’s and domestic horse populations diverged 38–72?kyr BP, and find no evidence of recent admixture between the domestic horse breeds and the Przewalski’s horse investigated. This supports the contention that Przewalski’s horses represent the last surviving wild horse population6. We find similar levels of genetic variation among Przewalski’s and domestic populations, indicating that the former are genetically viable and worthy of conservation efforts. We also find evidence for continuous selection on the immune system and olfaction throughout horse evolution. Finally, we identify 29 genomic regions among horse breeds that deviate from neutrality and show low levels of genetic variation compared to the Przewalski’s horse. Such regions could correspond to loci selected early during domestication.