(Re)introducing the microbial buddy system

By Laurence Clarke

Co-extinction may be the most common form of extinction there is. From the Tasmanian tiger to the gastric-brooding frog, it’s no secret that lots of Australia’s animals have gone extinct. But many tiny microorganisms were dependent on these large animals. What happened to these microbes after the loss of their bigger buddies, and, if we can bring the animals back, will their microbes return too? Continue reading

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PhD opportunity: “Paleoclimate analysis using ancient microbial DNA: The history of Antarctic melting”

A PhD project is available at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA using ancient Antarctic microbial records to reconstruct the impacts of past climate change. Microbial DNA preserved in ice cores will be used to reconstruct the history of Antarctic ice sheet behaviour over the last full glacial cycle (from 130 kyr), with major implications for understanding past periods of rapid sea level change and for providing baseline measures for global climate change models. The project has strong potential to make major contributions to our understanding of past climate change, and for informing predictive models for the next century.

The project is a collaboration with Prof. Chris Turney, and Dr Chris Fogwill, of UNSW in Sydney, and there is the potential for Antarctic fieldwork during the project.

A highly motivated candidate with strong initiative and organisational skills is required, with a background in environmental microbiology and climate change. A publication record would be a distinct advantage, and the position is open to both Australian and international candidates.

Contact Prof. Alan Cooper, alan.cooper@adelaide.edu.au, with a letter of interest, background information addressing the above criteria, and a CV by 21st October 2015.

OAGR: a brand new genome database

By Jimmy Breen and Andrew Farrer

Here at ACAD, the incredible range of rare, ancient samples we get to work with always excites us. The DNA data we are able to recover from these samples, alongside their crucial contextual information, reveals amazing insights into our history. We also realise that sharing data allows all researchers to ask bigger, broader, more detailed questions, and gives us the ability to answer them in more depth. Continue reading

DNA traces in soil link a suspect to a crime scene

By Jennifer Young

During my PhD at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) I developed a new soil DNA technique for use in real-life forensic casework. The study, now published in Forensic Science International, has shown that DNA identification of the fungi, plants, and bugs in small samples of soil can link a person to a particular location.

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Like a fingerprint, the life invisible to the naked eye reveals the original location of soil.

The project, co-funded by the Australian Research Council and the Australian Federal Police, created a mock crime scene to mimic the disappearance and recovery of a woman’s remains. A shovel was used to dig a shallow grave before being placed into a car boot alongside shoes worn at the time.

Six weeks later, the DNA of the fungus, plants, and bugs living in the soil stuck to the shoes and shovel was recovered, and compared to DNA detected in soils from multiple other locations across South Australia. The unique signature of fungus, plants, and bugs placed the soil samples recovered from the shoes and shovel just meters from the crime scene. This study is one of the first to demonstrate that new genomic methods can be used in real-life applications to track criminals weeks later and accurately place them at crime scenes. Our murderer has a lot more explaining to do! Continue reading

Your Daily Bread

By Jimmy Breen

Wheat is one of the major parts of human diet for most of the world’s population, despite the fact it (and other gluten-containing foods) tend to get a bum rap nowadays due to food-based gluten intolerance in western societies. Travel the world and, on most continents, there’s a good chance that you’ll encounter a big pile of bread (in some form) on the dinner table. Particularly in Westerner/European culture, bread is everywhere, from pastries and pies to flatbreads and baguettes. Beyond wheat, other grains also feature highly in our diets: oats and barley, for example. The wide-spread presence of grain-based foods in modern diets today is due, in part, to our human cultural evolution. Continue reading

What’s been going on? Part 2: Flores, homeland of the Pacific rat

By Vicki Thomson

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Travelling by traditional Polynesian canoe. Here, Hawaiian priests travel to meet Captain Cook. Credit: J. Webber

Knowing the history of the animals and plants we use regularly can shed light onto the history of human populations. Early cultures took pigs, dogs, rats, chickens, sweet potatoes, and bottle gourds as food items on their canoe voyages out into the Pacific – we assume they were uncertain of the food resources that would be available during or at their journey’s end. What the early Polynesians did not anticipate though was the destruction of native flora and fauna that would result from the introduction of some of these species, in particular, the Pacific rat (Rattus exulans or kiore in New Zealand). Today, the Pacific rat is currently found on almost all the Pacific islands. In New Zealand, a country with no native land mammals, many birds were driven extinct after the arrival of the Pacific rat with the Maori, in the late 13th century. These rats are also thought to have caused the complete deforestation of palm trees on Easter Island. As this rat cannot swim over long distances, we know the arrival of the Pacific rat on an island can be tied back to the appearance of humans, making this rat especially useful for tracking Polynesian migration and trade trips. Why were these people carrying rats with them? Continue reading

Ancient DNA adds a piece to the PIE

By Wolfgang Haak

It’s no secret that the history of mankind has a fascination for me. As a boy, I used to make bows and arrows, spears and stone tools, hung out in the large woods behind our house in the German countryside, and read books about Stone Age mammoth hunters of Europe (I won’t mention the loincloth I made of rabbit skins). Now, I work in the field of ancient DNA, in the lucky position to apply my personal passion for the human past through the combined research interests of genetics and archaeology.

This is hard work on a day-to-day basis. Our rewards include publications, when we can share our hard work with others, as was the case this week. This study is the culmination Continue reading