Just a tiny section of ancient DNA is now enough to reveal the genetic make-up extinct animals.

While DNA has provided invaluable information on past ecologies, ancient populations, and extinct species, locating and amplifying long strands of ancient DNA can be challenging.

A Griffith University research team led by Dr Leon Huynen and Professor David Lambert from Griffith’s Ancient DNA Laboratory, however, has discovered a technique of describing species which requires just a short section of mitochondrial DNA.

Professor David Lambert says the breakthrough technique was discovered while looking for ways to identify differences between similar species of the extinct New Zealand moa.

“One of the challenges of studying the extinct moa is that the bones are often in small fragments making it virtually impossible, from a morphological point of view, to identify species” Professor Lambert said.

“Another problem with very small or degraded samples is that it is difficult to extract long strands of DNA.

“So we started looking at a range of DNA sections and after a large number of samples we realised a region, comprising just 30 base pairs, was very informative.

“Through this short snippet of the highly variable mitochondrial control region sequence, we have been able to characterise a large number of samples previously intractable to DNA analysis.”

The technique allows the identification of more species than previously possible and the genetic structure of populations can also be studied so it is possible to determine which birds were genetically related within a geographic region.

“This will have specific applications for museum collections where there are often bone fragments without documentation as to where they came from. We can now

say they came from that region.”

The findings of this study have been reported in “Highly informative ancient DNA ‘snippets’ for New Zealand moa” inthe online open-access journal, PLOS ONE.