The NHM has just completed an Ancient DNA Lab Project (aDNA), to convert a lab in the Palaeontology Department into a state of the art dedicated aDNA laboratory. This will enable specimens will be sampled, prepared, and DNA extracted, before analysis in the Museum’s specialist sequencing facility.
DNA is nowadays easily analysed from tissue taken from organisms while alive, taking steps to preserve the tissue for analysis – such as freezing in liquid nitrogen. However, once an organism has died, its tissues and the DNA that they contain decay and break down in most cases.
Research in recent years makes analysis of ancient material possible, extracting DNA from teeth or bones in most cases and using advanced techniques to piece together information on the fragments. A specialist laboratory is essential to avoid contamination by modern DNA. The Museum's existing molecular laboratories for modern DNA provide facilities for a wide range of research projects but are not able to support research on the distant past.
One example of current interest in the Museum is the work of Professor Adrian Lister and colleagues, working on the DNA of woolly mammoth populations to examine patterns of distribution and extinction in past environments.
The new lab is an important addition to the Museum’s science infrastructure and as a necessary compliment to the current molecular facilities. This lab is intended to attract both internal and external researchers to make use of the NHM collections and address priorities identified by major funding bodies. It will also allow the training of postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers in ancient DNA methods and protocols.
A few natural history museums (such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the Copenhagen Natural History Museum) already undertake aDNA work as part of the research programmes of scientific staff, post-doctoral research assistants, and students. However, none has a dedicated, in-house, locally managed laboratory facility that serves as an institution-wide focus for aDNA research.
The laboratory will establish the NHM as having probably the most advanced such facility of any major natural history museum. The mere fact that aDNA sampling and extraction procedures can be carried out at the NHM will be sufficient to make it, and its collections, an international focus of aDNA research.