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DNA damage in preserved specimens and tissue samples: a molecular assessment

Juergen Zimmermann1, Mehrdad Hajibabaei2, David C Blackburn3, James Hanken3, Elizabeth Cantin1, Janos Posfai1 and Thomas C Evans1*

Author Affiliations

1 New England Biolabs Inc., 240 County Rd., Ipswich, MA, 01938, USA

2 Canadian Centre for DNA Barcoding, Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, University of Guelph, Guelph, Canada

3 Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA

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Frontiers in Zoology 2008, 5:18  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-5-18

Published: 23 October 2008


The extraction of genetic information from preserved tissue samples or museum specimens is a fundamental component of many fields of research, including the Barcode of Life initiative, forensic investigations, biological studies using scat sample analysis, and cancer research utilizing formaldehyde-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissue. Efforts to obtain genetic information from these sources are often hampered by an inability to amplify the desired DNA as a consequence of DNA damage.

Previous studies have described techniques for improved DNA extraction from such samples or focused on the effect of damaging agents – such as light, oxygen or formaldehyde – on free nucleotides.

We present ongoing work to characterize lesions in DNA samples extracted from preserved specimens. The extracted DNA is digested to single nucleosides with a combination of DNase I, Snake Venom Phosphodiesterase, and Antarctic Phosphatase and then analyzed by HPLC-ESI-TOF-MS.

We present data for moth specimens that were preserved dried and pinned with no additional preservative and for frog tissue samples that were preserved in either ethanol, or formaldehyde, or fixed in formaldehyde and then preserved in ethanol. These preservation methods represent the most common methods of preserving animal specimens in museum collections. We observe changes in the nucleoside content of these samples over time, especially a loss of deoxyguanosine. We characterize the fragmentation state of the DNA and aim to identify abundant nucleoside lesions. Finally, simple models are introduced to describe the DNA fragmentation based on nicks and double-strand breaks.