Genetics

Hobbit Tooth Ancient Dna



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In 2004 the scientific community was in an uproar over a tiny skeleton discovered on the island of Flores. The skeleton, which was dubbed a “hobbit” as a sort of endearing nickname, was thought to be around 18,000 years old. This year, scientists will attempt to extract DNA from a "hobbit" tooth, hoping to unlock some of the mysteries of the skeleton. The question on everyone’s minds is whether this hobbit tooth will yield ancient DNA.

Scientists have tried to extract ancient DNA before. As a matter of fact, they’ve tried to extract ancient DNA from a hobbit tooth. Unfortunately, they failed. The chances that any DNA survived for 18,000 years in the warm, wet climate of the island is already slim – but the drilling practices that the scientists used may have killed off any remaining DNA. This time, scientists will drill slower to keep the heat down to try to preserve any DNA that might exist.

The scientists will also be changing their target slightly. In past attempts, the inner tooth tissue (or dentine) was the mark for scientists searching for DNA. This time, researchers will be after cementum, which coats the roots – and is apparently more DNA rich.

The possibility of finding ancient DNA in the hobbit tooth is so important to the scientific community because of all the questions that remain unanswered about the hobbit’s origins. Though the skeleton was originally labeled a new species and claimed to have lived in relatively recent times (as early as 15,000 years ago), the scientific community has never completely agreed on its origins.

Some contend that the skeleton is nothing more than an ancestor of modern pygmies that continue to inhabit the island to this day. Others claim it is the skeleton of a modern human with some sort of genetic defect (one scientist even went so far as to question whether the skull showed signs of modern dental work). Some say it isn’t human at all, and of course, there are those that believe that the skeleton’s discovery has effectively transformed the current accepted ideas of human evolution.

Though there was no evidence of a ring found in the Flores cave where the skeleton was discovered, there was evidence of tools and other skeletons of similar stature nearby. Some scientists even believe this hobbit may have lived alongside modern humans for a short time before being wiped out by a volcano. It’s easy to see why scientists will be watching these developments closely in months to come. The test results may show us that the ancient world was more like Middle Earth than even Tolkien imagined.

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ARTICLE SOURCES AND CITATIONS
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  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=researchers-to-drill-for-hobbit
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14457876/ns/technology_and_science-science/
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2008/04/24-02.html