The genomic DNA sequencing of an extinct Pleistocene cave bear species--the kind of stuff once reserved for science fiction--has been logged into scientific literature thanks to investigators from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome Institute (JGI). This study, published in the June 2 online edition of the journal Science, has set the research community’s sights on traveling back in time through the vehicle DNA sequencing to reveal the story of other extinct species including our nearest relatives, the Neandertals.
Until now, researchers have been stymied in attempts to sequence genomes of extinct species. The DOE JGI scientists overcame many of the difficulties normally associated with recovery of DNA from ancient samples. DNA starts degrading at death while microbes attack the decaying carcass to utilize the nutrients present in the dead organism as an energy source. What remains and confounds the efforts to sequence and characterize these artifacts is an overabundance of microbial contaminants along with the occasional DNA fingerprints contributed unwittingly by the modern fossil hunters or lab workers.
"Among the limitations of previous ancient DNA studies was that they were restricted to mitochondrial DNA sequences," said Eddy Rubin, DOE JGI director, in whose laboratory the work was conducted. "While mitochondria are great for learning about evolutionary relationships between species, to understand the functional differences between extinct and modern species we really need genomic DNA, and nobody has been able to purify and sequence large quantities of DNA from these old samples.
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