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Straight from the horse's toe: the world's oldest genome

Scientists have reconstructed the genome of a horse that lived some 700,000 years ago, mapping out the evolutionary history of the modern horse.

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A Przewalski's horse is shown in Khomyntal, western Mongolia, in one of three reintroduction sites. From a tiny fossil bone found in the Yukon, scientists have deciphered the genetic code of an ancient horse about 700,000 years old. The researchers also found new evidence that the endangered Przewalski's horse, found in Mongolia and China, is the last surviving wild horse.

Claudia Feh/Przewalski's Horse Association via Nature/AP

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Researchers have sequenced the genome of a horse that lived some 700,000 years ago – the oldest genome ever sequenced – making it possible to reconstruct an evolutionary narrative of the modern horse, whose journey through history has been intimately bound to our own.

According to a study published in the current issue of the scientific journal Nature, the genome of an ancient horse that lived in what is now Canada’s Yukon is about 10 times older than the previous oldest genome – that of a human who lived about 70,000 years ago. That means the hindsight of paleogenomics has been dialed backward some 630,000 years from where it was, offering up the extraordinary possibility that scientists may be able to reproduce our prehistoric record in greater detail than ever before, tracing not just the evolution of horses but – tantalizingly – of humans.

"We have beaten the time barrier,” said evolutionary biologist Ludovic Orlando of the University of Copenhagen, a lead author of the study, in a statement. “All of a sudden, you have access to many more extinct species than you could have ever dreamed of sequencing before.”

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