"For the genetic analysis to be accurate, however, you must have the right molecular clock rate," Denver said. "We now think that many genetic changes were happening that conventional DNA analysis did not capture. They were fairly easy to use and apply but also too indirect, and inaccurate as a result."
This conclusion, researchers said, was forced by the study of many penguin bones that were well preserved by sub-freezing temperatures in Antarctica. These penguins live in massive rookeries, have inhabited the same areas for thousands of years, and it was comparatively simple to identify bones of different ages just by digging deeper in areas where they died and their bones piled up.
For their study, the scientists used a range of mitochondrial DNA found in bones ranging from 250 years to about 44,000 years old.
"In a temperate zone when an animal dies and falls to the ground, their DNA might degrade within a year," Denver said. "In Antarctica the same remains are well-preserved for tens of thousands of years. It's a remarkable scientific resource."
A precise study of this ancient DNA was compared to the known ages of the bones, and produced results that were far different than conventional analysis would have suggested. Researchers also determined that different types of DNA sequences changed at different rates.
Aside from raising doubts about the accuracy of many specimens dated with conventional approaches, the study may give researchers tools to improve their future dating estimates, Denver said.
|Contact: Dee Denver|
Oregon State University