December 19, 2010

Survival of ancient DNA from teeth and bones

This is good news as it opens the way for more ancient DNA evidence, even from specimens that were thought not to contain usable DNA.

Journal of Archaeological Science doi:10.1016/j.jas.2010.11.010

Survival and recovery of DNA from ancient teeth and bones

C.J Adler et al.

The recovery of genetic material from preserved hard skeletal remains is an essential part of ancient DNA, archaeological and forensic research. However, there is little understanding about the relative concentrations of DNA within different tissues, the impact of sampling methods on extracted DNA, or the role of environmentally-determined degradation rates on DNA survival in specimens. We examine these issues by characterizing the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) content of different hard and soft tissues in 42 ancient human and bovid specimens at a range of fragment lengths (77–235 bp) using real-time PCR. Remarkably, the standard drill speeds used to sample skeletal material (c. 1000 RPM) were found to decrease mtDNA yields up to 30 times (by 3.1 × 105 mtDNA copies on average) compared to pulverization in a bone mill. This dramatic negative impact appears to relate to heat damage, and disappeared at very low drill speeds (e.g. 100 RPM). Consequently, many ancient DNA and forensic studies may have obtained false negative results, especially from important specimens which are commonly sampled with drills to minimize signs of damage. The mtDNA content of tooth cementum was found to be five times higher than the commonly used dentine (141 bp, p = 0.01), making the cementum-rich root tip the best sample for ancient human material. Lastly, mtDNA was found to display a consistent pattern of exponential fragmentation across many depositional environments, with different rates for geographic areas and tissue types, improving the ability to predict and understand DNA survival in preserved specimens.


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