Preserved in crystal

Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science recently discovered a new source of well-preserved ancient DNA in fossil bones. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Fossil DNA is a potential source of information on the evolution, population dynamics, migrations, diets and diseases of animals and humans. But if it is not well preserved or becomes contaminated by modern DNA, the results are uninterpretable.

The scientists, Prof. Steve Weiner and Michal Salamon of the Institute's Structural Biology Department, working in collaboration with Profs. Baruch Arensburg, Tel Aviv University, and Noreen Tuross, Harvard University, may have found a way to overcome these problems.

It was in 1986 that Weiner first reported the existence of crystal clusters in fresh bones. Even when these bones are ground up and treated with sodium hypochlorite – a substance that removes all traces of organic matter – the clusters of crystals remain intact and the organic material embedded in them is unaffected. Now, almost 20 years later, Weiner and Salamon have returned to these findings, reasoning that fossil bones might possess such crystal structures containing preserved ancient DNA.

After treating two modern and six fossil animal bones with the sodium hypo-chlorite, they found that DNA could be extracted from most of these crystal aggregates that is better preserved and contains longer fragments than DNA from untreated ground bone. The technique for reading the DNA worked better, as well, and the use of sodium hypochlorite reduces the possibility of modern contamination.

The crystal aggregates act as a "privileged niche in fossil bone," protecting the DNA from hostile environments and leaving it relatively undamaged over time. The team's findings suggest that the DNA in these aggregates should be preferred, whenever possible, over DNA from untreated bone.

This method holds much promise for the future analysis of ancient DNA in bones in yielding more reliable and authentic results than has previously been possible, and may help in unearthing the mysteries of our ancestral past.

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Prof. Steve Weiner's research is supported by the Helen and Martin Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science; the Philip M. Klutznick Fund for Research; the Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach Foundation; the Women's Health Re-search Center; and George Schwartzman, Sarasota, FL. Prof. Weiner is the incumbent of the Dr. Walter and Dr. Trude Borchardt Professorial Chair in Structural Biology.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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