30 million-year-old DNA strand found

September 25, 1992|By Dallas Morning News

Long before there were households, there were household pests.

One of those ancient nuisances made history today, when scientists announced they have found the oldest strand of DNA ever examined, from a 30 million-year-old termite mummified in amber.

The discovery of the termite has helped the scientists answer a question that has bugged them for years: Which came first, the cockroach or the termite?

Neither, it turns out. Both evolved separately from a common ancestral vermin that scientists cannot identify. That knowledge provides another important piece in the puzzle of evolution.

"It makes a difference in how we view the world," said Ward Wheeler, one of four scientists who studied the termite at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. They were to report their findings today in the journal Science.

Their discovery was made possible by recent biotechnological advances. Scientists have been able to study ancient DNA only since 1984, and the termite is only the second specimen to be studied that is more than a few thousand years old.

The termite DNA is 12 million years older than the previous record-holding specimen -- from a magnolia leaf found in Idaho. "It's a significant jump in terms of how far back we can go," the scientist said.

Although the termite -- found in the Dominican Republic -- was perfectly preserved, the scientists removed only a smudge to study.

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