In The Field

INQUA: How to get ancient DNA

It ain’t easy working in the field of ancient DNA, as Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide will tell you. His lab works on cool specimens such as Neanderthal teeth, bison bones, and moa poo, trying to extract signs of long-gone life.

But getting DNA out of old specimens is subject to many whims of fate, Cooper told the meeting in a plenary lecture today. One time his team tried to run sequences on a Viking skull from Greenland – and got 23 sequences from 23 separate individuals. “Probably 23 archaeologists,” Cooper jokes.

Technicians in ancient DNA laboratories have to take special care not to contaminate the material they’re working with. They suit up in clean suits, wear surgical gloves that they change regularly, and work in rooms with negative air pressure to blow contaminants out. Lab equipment has to be sterilized with ultraviolet radiation because it can be contaminated with mouse droppings. Visitors have to wear visors because the fluttering of eyelashes can spread DNA everywhere.

But if it’s done right, ancient DNA can reveal a lot about long-lost worlds – like the fact that different-sized moas can be just different sexes and not different species, or that bison in North America may have been starting to crash before human hunters ever showed up on the plains.

Findings like that are probably worth all the tidying up around the lab.

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