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 identification of ancient fossils. Using an ultra-high resolution mass spectrometer, bio-archaeologists were able to produce a near complete collagen sequence for the West Runton Elephant, a Steppe Mammoth skeleton which was discovered in cliffs in Norfolk, UK, in 1990. The remarkable 85 percent complete skeleton - the most complete example of its species ever found in the world - is preserved by the 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 absolutely remarkable. 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 believe protein lasts in a useful form ten times as long as DNA which is normally only useful in discoveries 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 identify remains from tiny fragments of bone.” Dr Mike Buckley, from the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester, said: “What is truly fascinating is that this fundamentally 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 it is arguably the oldest protein ever sequenced; short peptides (chains of amino acids) have controversially been reported from dinosaur fossils.
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