Sunday, June 5, 2011

Protein from Bones of 600,000-Year-Old Mammoth Extracted Effectively

Researchers from the University of York and Manchester have successfully extracted protein from the bones of a 600,000-year-old mammoth, paving the way for the recognition of ancient fossils.

Using an ultra-high resolution mass spectrometer, bio-archaeologists were able to create a near complete collagen series for the West Runton Elephant, a Steppe Mammoth skeleton which was discovered in cliffs in Norfolk in 1990. The remarkable 85 per cent complete skeleton -- the most total example of its species ever found in the world -- is potted by Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service in Norwich.

Bio-archaeologist Professor Matthew Collins, from the University of York's Department of Archaeology, said: "The time depth is totally extraordinary. Until several years ago we did not believe we would find any collagen in a skeleton of this age, even if it was as well-preserved as the West Runton Elephant.

"We consider protein lasts in a useful form ten times as long as DNA which is normally only useful in detections of up to 100,000 years old in Northern Europe. The implications are that we can use collagen sequencing to look at very old extinct animals. It also means we can look through old sites and recognize remains from tiny fragments of bone."

Dr Mike Buckley, from the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester, said: "What is truly charming is that this basically important protein, which is one of the most abundant proteins in most (vertebrate) animals, is an ideal target for obtaining long lost genetic information."

The collagen sequencing was carried out at the Centre for Excellence in Mass Spectrometry at the University of York and is debatably the oldest protein ever sequenced; short peptides (chains of amino acids) have controversially been accounted from dinosaur fossils.

The research formed part of a study into the sequencing of mammoths and mastodons, which is published in the journal Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta. The West Runton Elephant was compared with other mammoths, modern elephants and mastodons. Despite the age of the fossil, sufficient peptides were obtained to recognize the West Runton skeleton as elephantid, and there was sufficient sequence variation to distinguish elephantid and mammutid collagen.

Nigel Larkin, co-author and Research Associate with Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, said: "The West Runton Elephant is unusual in that it is a nearly total skeleton. At the time this animal was alive, before the Ice Ages, spotted hyenas much larger than those in Africa today were scavenging most carcasses and eat greedily the bones as well as meat. That means most fossils found from this time period are individual bones or fragments of bone, making them difficult to identify. In the future, collagen sequencing might help us to decide the species represented by even smallest scraps of bone.

"Therefore this research has important insinuation for bones and bone fragments in all archaeological and palaeontological collections in museums and archaeology units around the world, not just those of Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service in Norwich."