Until now, it hasn’t been possible to get the DNA out of a pressed dried plant (herbarium specimen) without destroying part of it by removing a leaf and grinding it up.
But new research by scientist Lara Shepherd has proven that you can use an eraser to ‘rub off’ the DNA.
The importance of dried plants to museum collections
Museum collections, including herbarium specimens (pressed dried plants), are becoming an increasingly popular source of DNA for research. They’re a readily-available source of DNA for rare and extinct species and those only found in remote locations.
However, museum specimens are a finite resource so developing methods that minimize damage to them is important.
DNA from zoological specimens
A number of non-destructive methods have been used to obtain DNA from zoological specimens, including teeth and bones. These normally involve soaking the DNA out of the bone or teeth. However, plant specimens are usually mounted on paper ruling out this approach.
Using erasers to get DNA
My method is based on a technique that has been used to isolate proteins from parchment, which is made from animal skins. I wondered if this method could also be used to also obtain DNA from plants.
I tried rubbing the surface of dried plant specimens with pieces of a special eraser used by museum conservators (but conveniently available from Whitcoulls). The eraser fragments (called erdu) were then used in a normal DNA extraction.
Using this method I was able to get DNA out of half the herbarium specimens that I tried, including from a specimen that was over 70 years old! Most importantly the eraser left no visible damage on the herbarium specimens.
This method worked best for plants that have that have tough leaves. For plants with delicate leaves, I was able to successfully use the eraser on the more robust leaf stalks instead.
This new method will be particularly useful for researching significant specimens, such as name-bearing type specimens and rare and extinct species, for which curators have been reluctant to partially destroy.
- Blog: Introducing Imber’s petrel: a new recently extinct seabird species for New Zealand – Science researcher Lara Shepherd compares the DNA sequences from petrel species
- Animal origin of 13th-century uterine vellum revealed using noninvasive peptide fingerprinting – This study reports the first use of triboelectric extraction of protein from parchment
- DNA extraction – Wikipedia article about DNA extraction
- Type specimens – Wikipedia article about type specimens