Elizabeth Dobson Jones provides us with a fascinating insight into ancient DNA from recent research conducted at the Natural History Museum.
In 1990, Michael Crichton published the book Jurassic Park. In 1993, Steven Spielberg produced and released the movie. The science fiction story of recreating dinosaurs from DNA in amber coincided with – and even accelerated – the emerging science of ancient DNA research. A series of studies claimed the extraction of DNA from a 130-million-year-old amber insect to an 80-milion-year-old dinosaur bone. However, sensationalism turned to skepticism. These claims seemed too good, or too old, to be true.
The search for molecules in fossils is an international endeavor, but it was the United Kingdom that first supported it on a serious scale. With the Natural Environment Research Council, the Ancient Biomolecules Initiative provided just over £140,000 to scientists at the Natural History Museum in London to settle the score on ancient molecules from amber fossils. After testing different specimens of various resins and multiple ages (tens to hundreds of millions of years old), researchers conclusively failed to find any authentic ancient DNA. One researcher said they “jumped through all kinds of hoops and did all the protocols” to “make sure” they had “believable results” and in the end, they “failed pretty comprehensively.” In 1997, Science reported a “‘No Go’ for Jurassic Park-style dinos.” Dinosaur DNA was debunked.
The Natural History Museum in London was central in testing and defining limits of ancient DNA research. However, following the debunking of dinosaur DNA the lab dissolved as researchers went in different directions. Simultaneously, ancient DNA research and its reputation as a serious science was suffering. Its credibility was dramatically dropping. Over a decade later a new lab, with no connection to the old one, was proposed. Adrian Lister, Research Leader in Paleontology, was the mastermind behind it. By 2007, technology had advanced, and with it the possibility to extract DNA from fossils more accurately. To win the bid for his project proposal, Lister’s argument for the £300,000 state-of-the-art lab appealed to the Museum’s mission: obtaining and maintaining the latest technology and exploiting the current museum collections. The goal, however, was not to search for dinosaur DNA. Dinosaurs were thought to be too old to preserve DNA. Instead, the goal was to explore ancient but geologically much more recent organisms like the woolly mammoth and other animals, plants, and insects housed in the museum. In 2011, the lab opened.
In 2013, Ian Barnes became the research leader of the new lab, and joined the museum with an approximately £400,000 grant in hand. Awarded by the Wellcome Trust and in collaboration with Mark Thomas at University College London, this three-year-project brings together geneticists and archeologists to investigate how diet and disease of humans in Great Britain has evolved over the past 10,000 years. This represents a major movement in the history of ancient DNA research. Confidence in the authenticity and reproducibility of ancient DNA research has waxed and waned over the past three decades. The hype of Jurassic Park and the crash and burn of several studies announcing the most ancient DNA from the most iconic fossils left a lasting mark on the science. Today, it is emerging from and evolving beyond that narrative. Ancient DNA research, once a novelty and specialty, is now more mainstream. It is meeting – and even exceeding – our expectations for what it can tell us about evolutionary history, including our own human history and how we relate to extinct Neanderthals. The Natural History Museum Ancient DNA Lab is one of the first facilities of its kind in a major museum, and demonstrates that both the museum and ancient DNA research have a place in the world of evolutionary biology.
The history of science is full of episodes that express the complex and contentious relationship between fact, fantasy, and the future. The history of ancient DNA research is no exception and is one of the most expressive examples of how imagination inspires innovation of novel and controversial approaches to studying the past. Ancient DNA is a way to explore the past, envisage our future, and the Natural History Museum is set to play a real role in this venture.