Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany many have discovered a new method of retrieving ancient DNA in cave soil. Skeletal remains are hard to find in prehistoric sites across Europe and Asia, and the team of researchers may have discovered a new technique to extract the ancient DNA.
Samples collected from seven locations, researchers were able to find small DNA fragments belonging to a wide variety of animals. Included in this ancient DNA may be pieces from extinct human relatives. With these ancient DNA samples, researchers may now be able to uncover genetic similarities in the soil where no human remains were found. Ancient DNA samples of Denisovan and Neanderthals were found in these caves.
Denisovan is an extinct species or subspecies of humans. Remains were found in the remote Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains in Siberia. The cave was also inhabited by Neanderthals and modern humans. Denisovan DNA has shown them to have a common origin from Neanderthals. They lived from Siberia to Southeast Asia.
Neanderthals are named after the Neanderthal region in Germany and were a species or subspecies of humans. They went extinct about 40,000 years ago. Modern humans share about 99.7 percent of DNA with Neanderthals. Remains have been found in Eurasia, Western Europe, Central, and Northern Asia.
In the press release from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Matthias Meyer said the researchers knew that “several components of sediments can bind DNA.” With this knowledge, the researchers investigated whether DNA could survive in archaeological sites that were known to have “ancient hominins.”
Working with a “large network of researchers,” Meyer and his team began excavating at seven sites in Croatia, Russia, Belgium, Spain, and France. They collected enough sediment covering a period from 14,000 to over 550,000 years ago. From these samples, the researchers were able to recover and analyze fragments of mitochondrial DNA. The DNA found belonged to extinct species which include the woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, the cave bear, and the cave hyena.
Meyer’s team of researchers then turned their attention to finding “ancient hominin DNA” in their samples. After changing their techniques, the researchers “targeting specifically DNA fragments of human origin,” Viviane Slon, Ph.D. said. Enough ancient hominin DNA was found for “further analysis.” By analyzing the soil for DNA fragments, researchers have developed a new archaeology tool. Researchers were able to find DNA in room temperature soil samples.
By Cheryl Werber
Photo Courtesy MPI f. Evolutionary Anthropology/ J. Krause