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Mol Biol Evol. 2004 May;21(5):957-64. Epub 2004 Mar 10.

Spiking of contemporary human template DNA with ancient DNA extracts induces mutations under PCR and generates nonauthentic mitochondrial sequences.

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  • 1Institute of Anthropology and Human Genetics, Division of Molecular Genetics, University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany.


Proof of authenticity is the greatest challenge in palaeogenetic research, and many safeguards have become standard routine in laboratories specialized on ancient DNA research. Here we describe an as-yet unknown source of artifacts that will require special attention in the future. We show that ancient DNA extracts on their own can have an inhibitory and mutagenic effect under PCR. We have spiked PCR reactions including known human test DNA with 14 selected ancient DNA extracts from human and nonhuman sources. We find that the ancient DNA extracts inhibit the amplification of large fragments to different degrees, suggesting that the usual control against contaminations, i.e., the absence of long amplifiable fragments, is not sufficient. But even more important, we find that the extracts induce mutations in a nonrandom fashion. We have amplified a 148-bp stretch of the mitochondrial HVRI from contemporary human template DNA in spiked PCR reactions. Subsequent analysis of 547 sequences from cloned amplicons revealed that the vast majority (76.97%) differed from the correct sequence by single nucleotide substitutions and/or indels. In total, 34 positions of a 103-bp alignment are affected, and most mutations occur repeatedly in independent PCR amplifications. Several of the induced mutations occur at positions that have previously been detected in studies of ancient hominid sequences, including the Neandertal sequences. Our data imply that PCR-induced mutations are likely to be an intrinsic and general problem of PCR amplifications of ancient templates. Therefore, ancient DNA sequences should be considered with caution, at least as long as the molecular basis for the extract-induced mutations is not understood.

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