Inside a human cell’s mitochondria–the tiny organelles that provide energy–there is a small and unique chromosome. This loop of DNA is passed from mother to child in every generation and provides an intriguing source of information about mankind’s past. Geneticists are using that information in an attempt to determine exactly when the “mother” of all humans lived.

Studies involving this mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, raise a number of questions. First, is it possible to reconstruct a putative first mother’s mtDNA sequence? And if so, how does it compare to that of modern humans–her many descendants? Also, is there enough information in today’s mtDNA to deduce when the figurative first mother–named “Mitochondrial Eve”–lived?

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