Brushing the Dust off Ancient DNA; Genetic Relics Reveal Hidden Details of Prehistoric Life

By Hoppe, Kathryn | Science News, October 24, 1992 | Go to article overview

Brushing the Dust off Ancient DNA; Genetic Relics Reveal Hidden Details of Prehistoric Life


Hoppe, Kathryn, Science News


Genetic relics reveal hidden details of prehistoric life

The oldest reported DNA comes from some bugs that stepped in the wrong place about 30 million years ago.

This dramatic evidence of DNA's durability emerged last month in two papers announcing the successful extraction of DNA from fossil insects. Descriptions of DNA extracted from a fossil bee by California researchers appeared in the September MEDICAL SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH. A similar report by researchers at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City -- focusing on an extinct termite -- followed in the Sept. 25 SCIENCE.

In each case, scientists managed to amplify small fragments of DNA with a molecular copying process known as polymerase chain reaction (SN: 4/23/88, p.262). And both teams examined insects preserved in pieces of amber from the Dominican Republic, one of the world's most significant sources of this gem.

Amber-encased fossils, long valued for their excellent three-dimensional detail, are particularly suited for molecular studies. Some "specimens are so well preserved that you can identify cellular structures" under the microscope, says Raul J. Cano, a microbiologist at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, who took part in the bee study.

People have long recognized that amber, a form of fossilized tree resin, preserves organic tissue extremely well. The ancient Egyptians used crushed amber to preserve mummies, notes Ward Wheeler, who coauthored the termite report.

Normally, organic tissue -- and the DNA it contains -- degrades rapidly after an animal dies. When sealed in amber, however, tissues remain isolated from the decay-promoting effects of external air and water. Amber not only acts as a natural antibiotic that prevents the growth of microbes, but it also dries out the creatures it entombs to form natural mummies. An animal trapped in a glob of sap "is there for good," Wheeler says.

Such prisoners include "pretty much anything you can imagine that would be on the side of a tree -- small frogs, small lizards, bird feathers, land snails, and a tremendous variety of insects," he says. The animals thus trapped are typically small, since the largest pieces of amber reach only about 6 inches across.

Wheeler's group studied an extinct termite called Mastotermes electrodominicus. Considered by some "a missing link between cockroaches and termintes," this particular bug had the potential to solve "an interesting evolutionary question," explains entomologist David Grimaldi, who participated in the investigation. In the past, researchers had debated whether termites evolved from cockroaches or in parallel with them. Using sequenced fragments of DNA from M. electrodominicus, the New York scientists determined that their ancient bug was more termite than roach, suggesting separate origins for the two groups.

The California researchers extracted DNA from an extinct species of stingless bee known as Proplebeia dominicana. They hope their sample will reveal details about the evolution of this bee's modern relatives and provide a reference point for measuring evolutionary changes over time, says Cano.

Such investigations can provide detailed information that may not be available from studies of modern groups or from the anatomical details of fossils. In the future, "amber is going to be looked at for a wealth of information" about ancient lineages, predicts study coauthor George O. Poinar Jr., a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Amber fossils represent only a small fraction of the many potential sources of prehistoric DNA.

Other researchers have examined a wide range of preserved bones for information about animals much larger than those trapped in amber. As with the amber-entombed insects, however, only tissues protected from weathering and microbial decay yield remnants of their original DNA. …

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