978-0-7139-9423-0 / 9780713994230

The Molecule Hunt - Archaeology and the Search for Ancient DNA


Publisher:Allen Lane / Penguin Books



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About the book:

Forget dinosaur DNA and Jurassic Park science fiction. TheMolecule Hunt is the real (and just as fascinating) story of the scientific search for ancient DNA told by an insider who really knows. Martin Jones is a Cambridge University professor of archaeology and chairman of a major research program into ancient DNA. The search began back in the 1970s when archaeology woke up to the vast amount of biological information thrown away as bits of pottery were scrubbed clean. The bioarchaeological revolution showed just how much could be discovered about the environment and people who were originally engaged with those bits of pottery and other artefacts. But the revolution did not stop at the organic debris of ancient rubbish dumps, by the 1980s the potential for recovery of ancient biomolecules such as DNA was firstrealised. As Martin Jones tells, it was Chinese scientists who first recovered and identified nucleic acids from the preserved liver of a corpse from a 2,000-year-old Han dynasty tomb. Then the first fossil DNA was recovered from the 100-year-old dried skin of a quagga, an extinct zebra, and the hunt for ancient DNA was really on. But as Jones reveals, trials and tribulations were ahead and by the early 1990s the rush for headline grabbing results overtook the science as claims were made for DNA from amber embedded insects and dinosaur bone. However, thanks to collaborative efforts, the scientists got their act together and have since had a series of spectacular results--from recovering DNA from 50,000-year-old Neanderthal bones to the identification of the remains of the last Tsar and his family, helped by a blood sample from a living relative Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Inevitably, some strong technical language is used but the story is so good it is worth making the effort to negotiate the odd lipid and haplotype. A reference list and index help the reader follow up the details of these remarkable stories. And, for all dinophiles, there is a ray of hope: as Martin Jones says there is a reasonable case for the persistence of some recognisable protein fragments in dinosaur bones. --Douglas Palmer

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