Otago University researchers make groundbreaking discovery on how to extract DNA from small fossils

Researchers at the University of Otago have made a groundbreaking discovery on how to extract DNA from small fossils and artifacts.

The breakthrough opens up a world of possibilities for museums and researchers to access the history of our smaller species not only in New Zealand but across the globe.

 A tiny ancient gecko bone might be the size of a fingernail, but it contains centuries of precious data. Accessing that ancient DNA without destroying the sample in the process has long been a problem for researchers and museum curators.

Director of University of Otago Paleogenetics Laboratory Dr Nic Rawlence says to get a sample from a bone it requires drilling into it.

"Traditionally if you would want to sample a bone for an ancient DNA researcher you would chop or drill a hole. Now a big bone can handle that but small bones like a gecko can't handle that and it would destroy the bone and you would have a very angry Museum curator on your hands."

However, the researchers discovered a new technique during a recent study into New Zealand's past gecko populations.

"We put our small bone in an enzymatic bone bath and it soaks out the DNA and we can do CT scanning before and after this soaking out and you can't see any difference to the bone. It's completely non-destructive," said Dr Rawlence.

The news is being welcomed with open arms by museum curators across the globe who have been torn between preserving the history of fragile samples and understanding the past.

Assistant Curator of Natural Science at Otago Museum Kane Fleury said it opens a world of possibilities.

"It opens up whole swaths of material which has been in museum collections which curators have typically been very hesitant to allow geneticists to access for sampling," he said.

Dr Rawlence added: "It's very exciting so we can now start reconstructing evolutionary history of not just geckos that we focused on but also skinks frogs and tuatara that we are working on in the lab and other small animals"