A Look into UIUC’s Ancient DNA Lab: having a blast looking into the past

By Alida de Flamingh

Me (Alida de Flamingh) in the Ancient DNA laboratory holding tubes with ancient Ivory from a 1530’s shipwreck.
Me (Alida de Flamingh) in the Ancient DNA laboratory holding tubes with ancient Ivory from a 1530’s shipwreck.

If you’ve ever watched Jurassic Park you may have wondered, “Is it even possible to get genetic material from dinosaurs?”. The answer is not as straight-forward as you might think.. Most researchers agree that dinosaurs might have existed too long ago for DNA to be retrieved from bones or eggs, and studies that contradict this may be hindered by DNA contamination from other sources. BUT! You can get authentic DNA from awesome extinct species such as the Woolly Mammoth and the Quagga (a Zebra-like creature that lived in South Africa).

Working with ancient DNA (aDNA) poses a lot of challenges. Researchers are mainly worried about contamination from other sources, and whether the genetic code in the ancient specimen has changed a lot due to the natural process of DNA degradation. Luckily, the field of aDNA research has grown rapidly in the last three decades, and there are solutions to most of the challenges that aDNA researchers face. One of the most important precautions is to work in an area that contains no other DNA – these laboratories are often referred to as “clean-rooms” and we have one right here on the UIUC campus. It’s situated in the basement of the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB). Working in this lab requires a lot of patience since the de-contamination procedures are time consuming. Researchers wear special suits (called bunny suits), face masks and hair nets which help prevent them from contaminating the lab (see photo). They also decontaminate themselves and all equipment with a DNA eliminating chemical before starting experiments.

Dr. Ripan Malhi is the main researcher in the Malhi ancient DNA lab (check out their facebook page), and he leads a diverse set of aDNA projects. Some of the specimens his lab works on include ancient indigenous humans, ancient dogs, extinct or endangered species such as Javan and Sumatran rhino specimens, ancient artifacts such as pipe stems, and other interesting projects that I get to work on.

As a large mammal ecologist working in South Africa, I never imagined I’d get a chance to work in one of the six aDNA labs in the USA (check out the International Society of Genetic Genealogy wiki for a list on worldwide aDNA facilities). I started my PhD at UIUC last year and was invited to be part of two projects on aDNA by Dr. Malhi. The first is on ancient ivory from a Portuguese shipwreck that sank off the coast of Namibia (next to South Africa) in the 1530’s; the second is on ancient fish bones dated to be about 2000 years old.

Seeing how this is an environmental magazine you might have thought by now “yeah, this research sounds cool, but how is it going to help the environment?”. Well, for my research, looking into the past can uncover a lot of information on what happened and is currently happening to wildlife populations. For example, you can find out if populations have suffered rapid declines through time, and if there were any genetic underpinnings that contributed to those population declines.  Looking at museum samples can tell you a lot about the genetic “health” of populations and might even provide information that can be used to inform current management strategies for those species.  Ancient DNA allows you to look into the past so that you can help the future.  


alida_fishbones_2 alida_fishbones_1

These fish bones are thought to be 2000 years old! (photo © Malhi lab by A.de Flamingh)

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