Scientists get DNA from mouldy old mammoth hair
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Scientists who pulled DNA from the hair shafts of 13 Siberian woolly mammoths said on Thursday it may be possible to mine museums for genetic information about ancient and even extinct species.
They were able to sequence a DNA sample taken from mammoth hair that had been "in somebody's drawer for 200 years," and one that was at least 50,000 years old, the international team of researchers said.
Now they are asking for samples of hair, feathers and even horn from museum specimens to see what they can learn from some of these aging items.
"For me the whole study is about extinction. How is it that large mammals go extinct?" Webb Miller, a biology professor and expert in genomics at Pennsylvania State University, said in a telephone interview. "I am thinking we could understand it better."
Studying the genetic material of animals could offer clues about tiny differences that helped one species survive while another perished, Miller said.
The same team has previously pulled DNA from the bones of mammoths found frozen in permafrost. It was assumed that DNA, a delicate compound, would not survive unless something extraordinary happened, such as an animal being frozen quickly at the time of death.
But the hair study, published in the journal Science, shows this is not necessarily the case. The DNA was found in the hair shaft, not the roots of the hair, and it was better preserved than samples taken from bone, Miller said.
It also was less likely to be contaminated with bacterial DNA than other DNA samples taken from ancient creatures, the researchers said.
One sample from Russia especially delighted the scientists.
"The almost perfectly preserved permafrost mummy was found in 1799 by a hunter of the Tungus tribe, who collected its tusks in the summer of 1804," they wrote in their report.
"To this date, the Adams skeleton is one of the most complete, and it has been continuously on display at the Zoological Museum in St. Petersburg."
Along with the skeleton, the explorers recovered 36 pounds (16 kg) of mammoth hair.
"The hair specimens have been stored for the past 200 years at room temperature, similar to most other samples that might be available for future analysis," the researchers wrote.
Yet Miller and his colleagues got DNA that they could sequence from these samples.
"What was unusual was the hair sat in somebody's drawer for 200 years," Miller said. "We were surprised -- very pleasantly surprised."
Perhaps other museum specimens could provide their genetic secrets, Miller said.
"There's all sorts of species that have gone extinct where somebody has a hair sample," Miller said. "We are thinking about some of those and we are in the phone book. So if somebody has really cool sample, let us know."
The oldest verified DNA comes from the bones of Neanderthal humans who lived in Europe 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, and from a 40,000-year-old cave bear bone.
Scientists have found preserved tissue in 68 million-year-old dinosaur bones but have not yet reported finding intact DNA in the samples.
The mammoth team used a sequencing machine made by 454 Life Sciences, a Roche company.
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