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Fossils used to map DNA across the globe

5 Articles About Paleogenetics & Ancient DNA

Invite students to explore the evolution of the human genome through these adapted articles on paleogenetics. With this collection, we celebrate one of our contributing researchers, Svante Pääbo, who was awarded the 2022 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. In fact, it was Dr. Pääbo’s work on Stone Age people (adapted below) that led to the formation of this new field! Engage students in this new path of discovery using standards-matched adaptations, introductory video content, comprehension questions, and vocabulary to further your lesson outcomes.

1. What can ancient DNA tell us about Stone Age people?

Archaeologists digging in a cave in Bulgaria found bones from people who lived 45,000 years ago. This period is known as the early Upper Paleolithic. It was an exciting time for human evolution as humans took a big jump forward in art and technology. It’s also a time when Neanderthals were still around. We wanted to know what these people’s DNA could tell us about where their ancestors came from and where their descendants ended up. Surprisingly, even though the bones were found in Europe, their DNA had more in common with people from East Asia and Native Americans. We also found that all the individuals whose remains were found in Bacho Kiro Cave had Neanderthal ancestors only a few generations back. That means that not only did Stone Age humans and Neanderthals know about each other, they sometimes had children together.

This article is suitable for lower high school students. It aligns with NGSS HS-LS4.

2. How can we find out about ancient Egyptian germs?

Microbes are everywhere on Earth. They’re in the soil, the rocks, the oceans, and in your body! The organisms living on you are called your microbiome. Your microbiome is important for your health. We wanted to know if we could use DNA to learn about the microbiome of mummified ancient Egyptian people. We used a new technique that matches up broken pieces of DNA. On the mummies, we found microbes that can cause gum disease. We also found evidence of germs that cause leprosy, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases.

This article is suitable for middle school and lower high school students. It aligns with NGSS HS-LS4.

3. What made woolly mammoths Ice Age icons?

What does it take to survive an ice age? Woolly mammoths are extinct today, but they thrived during the Late Pleistocene era. But what genetic adaptations separate woolly mammoths from their modern-day elephant relatives? To discover this, we analyzed the genomes of 23 woolly mammoths. This included one of the oldest woolly mammoth specimens ever discovered – 700,000 years old! We compared these to the genomes of living Asian and African elephants and looked for unique mutations in woolly mammoth genes. We found that woolly mammoths had changes in genes linked to hair growth and fat storage. These may have helped the woolly mammoth survive in its cold environment. The earliest woolly mammoths already had thick fur coats and large fat deposits. But these and other traits, like small ears, continued to evolve over time.

This article is suitable for lower high school students. It aligns with NGSS HS-LS4.

4. What can graves tell us about gender identity?

An early medieval grave in Finland has been puzzling archaeologists for a while. The person was buried with a sword, but also jewelry and other objects thought of as feminine. So, for a long time we’ve thought that it could be the grave of a powerful woman – a woman with a sword! This is surprising because usually swords are associated with men. But it’s not so straightforward. We wanted to find out who the person really was. We looked carefully at what they were buried with, and worked out their biological sex using ancient DNA. The results made us think that maybe medieval society had different ideas about sex and gender than what we thought.

This article is suitable for elementary school and middle school students. It aligns with NGSS HS-LS3 and NGSS MS-LS3.

5. When did bison first arrive in North America?

Did you know that the North American bison (aka American buffalo) was once an immigrant? Its ancestors migrated from Asia. We analyzed ancient DNA from the two oldest bison fossils known in North America: a foot bone about 130,000 years old that we found in northern Canada and an arm bone about 120,000 years old from Colorado. We also analyzed younger bison fossils from Alaska and northern Canada. We compared their DNA, which showed they were closely related and had a common ancestor. This meant that we could use their DNA to reveal the evolutionary history of bison in North America. Our study suggests that the first bison arrived in North America 195 – 135 thousand years ago over a land bridge between Asia and Alaska. They quickly spread and evolved (changed) into different forms to adapt to their new environments. Their invasion was so successful that they became the dominant mammal herbivore in North America and even changed entire ecosystems. Millions of these large, powerful mammals lived in many parts of North America until their near extinction in the late 1800s.

This article is suitable for middle school and lower high school students. It aligns with NGSS HS-LS2 and NGSS MS-LS2.

That’s Not All!

Check out these other adapted research articles on paleoscience topics:

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