An undergrad paleontology student at the University of Alberta has discovered an Ornithomimus dinosaur with preserved tail feathers and soft tissue, which further solidifies the link between ancient dinosaurs and modern birds. Experts say that the finding shows that the creature had a mixture of plumage and bare skin, likely resembling an ostrich.
The feathers have been crushed due to sediment compaction — however, scanning electron microscopy has revealed the 3D keratin structure of the feathers on the tail and body. This new discovery is one of only three feathered Ornithomimus specimens in the world.
Meanwhile, researchers at the Universities of Leicester and Warwick announce that they have discovered early conserved DNA sequences from almost 700 million years ago. The team discovered highly conserved sequences in non-coding DNA by analyzing the genome sequences of 12 different insects. They were then able to identify a set of 322 non-coding DNA regions — these have been evolutionarily preserved for at least 180 million years. The ancient sequences also showed up in modern animals such as insects, mammals, reptiles, jellyfish, and even the sponge. This is among the oldest-known regulatory DNA sequences.
The University of Leicester is no stranger to unearthing exciting discoveries related to ancient DNA — however, their perhaps best-known discovery isn’t quite as ancient as these recent DNA findings. A skeleton unearthed from a parking lot in the U.K. was later revealed to be the long-missing body of King Richard III. After careful excavation from the original burial site, the skull, the lower jaw, and one femur from the skeleton were placed for safe-keeping in the cleanroom in the University of Leicester’s Space Research Centre, which is normally used for the construction of spacecraft components. Due to their preservation, the teeth offered the best hope of intact mitochondrial DNA but the femur was kept as a back-up source.
Last week, Controlled Environments covered the genomic DNA research being done on the mysterious Shroud of Turin, thought by some to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. The DNA was extracted from dust particles vacuumed from parts of the body image and the lateral edge was used for radiocarbon dating.
CE also covered the testing of the bones of the so-called “Kennewick Man,” an ancient skeleton uncovered in Washington State. The bones were analyzed in an ultraclean and over-pressurized laboratory at the Centre for GeoGenetics, in order to determine how old they were and what ethnicity the person may have been able to claim.
Cleanrooms and proper laboratory settings are vital to this kind of research, because it’s imperative that ancient samples not be contaminated by modern pollutants or DNA. “Setting the stage – Building and working in an ancient DNA laboratory,” an article from the Annals of Anatomy, emphasizes this point:
“With the introduction of next generation high throughput sequencing in 2005 and the resulting revolution in genetics, ancient DNA research has rapidly developed from an interesting but marginal field within evolutionary biology into one that can contribute significantly to our understanding of evolution in general and the development of our own species in particular. While the amount of sequence data available from ancient human, other animal and plant remains has increased dramatically over the past five years, some key limitations of ancient DNA research remain. Most notably, reduction of contamination and the authentication of results are of utmost importance. A number of studies have addressed different aspects of sampling, DNA extraction and DNA manipulation in order to establish protocols that most efficiently generate reproducible and authentic results. As increasing numbers of researchers from different backgrounds become interested in using ancient DNA technology to address key questions, the need for practical guidelines on how to construct and use an ancient DNA facility arises. The aim of this article is therefore to provide practical tips for building a state-of-the-art ancient DNA facility. It is intended to help researchers new to the field of ancient DNA research generally, and those considering the application of next generation sequencing, in their planning process.”