A world-first study conducted by researchers from both the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) and Sydney’s Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, has shown that it is possible to accurately measure epigenetic modifications in extinct animals and populations.
The study analyses special genetic modifications that turn genes on and off, without altering the DNA sequence itself. These ‘epigenetic’ changes can occur rapidly between generations – without requiring the time for standard evolutionary processes. Thirty-thousand-year-old bison bones discovered in permafrost at a Canadian goldmine are playing a key role in this study. Such epigenetic modifications could explain how animal species are able to respond to rapid climate change.
Project leader Professor Alan Cooper, Director of ACAD, says: “Epigenetics is challenging some of our standard views of evolutionary adaptation, and the way we think about how animals use and inherit their DNA. In theory, such systems would be invaluable for a wide range of rapid evolutionary adaptation but it has not been possible to measure how or whether they are used in nature, or over evolutionary timescales.”