Quote: Matthias Höss on the fascination with ancient DNA

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In 2000, Igor Ovchinnikov and coworkers sequenced part of the mitochondrial genome of an infant’s skeleton from Mezmaiskaya Cave, Russia: “Molecular analysis of Neanderthal DNA from the northern Caucasus”. The skeleton was a Neandertal child, and this was the second Neandertal mtDNA sequence to be published. The first had been the Neandertal 1 skeletal individual from Feldhofer Cave, Germany.

Matthias Höss wrote a commentary to accompany the publication: “Neanderthal population genetics”. I was reading through this today as I’m compiling information about Neandertals that have been objects of DNA extraction.

I think this passage is worth sharing twenty years later:

Research into ancient DNA enjoys high publicity. It is perhaps the combination of modern molecular techniques and ‘old-fashioned’ archaeology that catches the interest of the scientific community and general public alike. This fascination sometimes clouds critical judgement. But this area of research, like all others, must meet with standards that ensure the authenticity and reproducibility of any given result. This has not always been so. Several of the most spectacular claims — such as the retrieval of DNA sequences from 15-million-year-old plant compression fossils, from 80-million-year-old bones of putative dinosaur origin and from insects of up to 130 million years in age trapped in amber — could not be reproduced in any other than the original laboratories, and so are of limited value.

The early forays that yielded mistaken results really shaped the development of ancient DNA analysis. Ultimately, the field survived these high-profile failures. The researchers who came to dominate were those who designed research studies that ancient DNA techniques actually had a chance of answering. That has shaped the development of the field in some productive directions, but has also left a few unexplored avenues.