Recovery of good quality DNA from preserved specimens

October 5th, 2021

Preserved specimens at the Australian National Wildlife Collection, CSIRO, Canberra.

Natural history collections are a storehouse of historical genomic data. With climate change threatening millions of species around the globe, biodiversity conservation is more important than ever. Genetic data from specimens can provide historical evidence of species change and help make predictions about the future.

Armed with modern techniques, we can now recover genetic data from specimens collected over the last 200-300 years.

For many species, however, recovery of historical genetic data has been severely impeded not by a lack of specimens but by the methods used to preserve them, particularly those preserved in the chemical known as formalin.

Over the past decade scientists have been seeking solutions to this barrier, and successfully sequenced a handful of formaldehyde-fixed museum specimens. While this is great news, the success or failure of a given formalin-fixed specimen to yield usable data has, to this point, been largely hit-or-miss.

Dr Erin Hahn, early career researcher with the Environomics FSP and colleagues, have recently published a paper documenting a simple screening method that can identify specimens that are more likely to yield good DNA data.

They also optimised a DNA extraction method that provides the best chance of formaldehyde-fixed specimens yielding good quality DNA.

You can read the full account of this work written by Erin Hahn, on The Conversation, ‘Old, goopy museum specimens can tell fascinating stories of wildlife history. Finally, we can read them’.

You can read the research paper, “Unlocking inaccessible historical genomes preserved in formalin”, in Molecular Ecology Resources