Temporal patterns of nucleotide misincorporations and DNA fragmentation in ancient DNA

Susanna Sawyer, Johannes Krause, K Guschanski, Vincent Savolainen, Svante Pääbo

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DNA that survives in museum specimens, bones and other tissues recovered by archaeologists is invariably fragmented and chemically modified. The extent to which such modifications accumulate over time is largely unknown but could potentially be used to differentiate between endogenous old DNA and present-day DNA contaminating specimens and experiments. Here we examine mitochondrial DNA sequences from tissue remains that vary in age between 18 and 60,000 years with respect to three molecular features: fragment length, base composition at strand breaks, and apparent C to T substitutions. We find that fragment length does not decrease consistently over time and that strand breaks occur preferentially before purine residues by what may be at least two different molecular mechanisms that are not yet understood. In contrast, the frequency of apparent C to T substitutions towards the 59-ends of molecules tends to increase over time. These nucleotide misincorporations are thus a useful tool to distinguish recent from ancient DNA sources in specimens that have not been subjected to unusual or harsh treatments.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere34131
Number of pages7
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 30 Mar 2012


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