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Combing for Ancient DNA

Courtesy of The Natural History Museum, LondonSome liken DNA recovery from ancient sources to genetic time travel. But contamination remains a significant challenge, and museum curators cringe about recovery methods that involve drilling into bone and teeth. To overcome this concern, researchers in the United Kingdom have refined a method to extract genetic material from ancient hair.Thomas Gilbert, then a student in Alan Cooper's laboratory at Oxford University, says he tired of porous ancient

David Secko
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Courtesy of The Natural History Museum, London

Some liken DNA recovery from ancient sources to genetic time travel. But contamination remains a significant challenge, and museum curators cringe about recovery methods that involve drilling into bone and teeth. To overcome this concern, researchers in the United Kingdom have refined a method to extract genetic material from ancient hair.

Thomas Gilbert, then a student in Alan Cooper's laboratory at Oxford University, says he tired of porous ancient bone and teeth giving contaminated DNA. Gilbert, now at the University of Arizona, attempted to use hair to amplify ancient mitochondrial DNA from sources that included a 64,800 year-old bison mummy.1 Although a forensics standard, hair is generally ignored as an ancient DNA source because it contains so little DNA. But Gilbert and colleagues found that hair's keratin-packed sheath protected against contamination, "making it a superior source," says Gilbert.

"This offers a major...

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