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Recent advances in ancient DNA research and their implications for archaeobotany


The scope and ambition of biomolecular archaeology is undergoing rapid change due to the development of new ‘next generation’ sequencing (NGS) methods for analysis of ancient DNA in archaeological specimens. These methods have not yet been applied extensively to archaeobotanical material but their utility has been demonstrated with desiccated, waterlogged and charred remains. The future use of NGS is likely to open up new areas of investigation that have been difficult or impossible with the traditional approach to aDNA sequencing. Species identification should become more routine with archaeobotanical explants, not just with charred grain but with most if not all species likely to be encountered in an archaeobotanical setting. Distinctions between different subspecies groups such as cereal landraces will also be possible in the near future. Phenotypic characterization, in which aDNA sequencing is used to infer the biological characteristics of an archaeological specimen, will become possible, improving our understanding of traits such as flowering behaviour of cereals, and when combined with studies of preserved RNA and protein will enable complex phenotypes such as environmental tolerance and nutritional quality to be assessed. The sequencing of entire ancient plant genomes is also likely to have significant impact. As with past studies of ancient plant DNA, realization of the new potential provided by NGS will require productive collaboration between archaeologists and geneticists within the archaeobotanical research community.

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This paper is dedicated to Franco Rollo, who passed away on 3rd September 2014. Franco was the first to identify preserved nucleic acids in plant remains. His work in the 1980s and early 1990s ensured that biomolecular archaeobotany developed into the rigorous and respected discipline that it has now become.

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Correspondence to Angela Schlumbaum.

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Communicated by S. M. Valamoti.

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Brown, T.A., Cappellini, E., Kistler, L. et al. Recent advances in ancient DNA research and their implications for archaeobotany. Veget Hist Archaeobot 24, 207–214 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00334-014-0489-4

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  • Ancient DNA
  • Charred plant remains
  • Desiccated plant remains
  • Genomes
  • Next generation DNA sequencing
  • Phenotype characterization
  • Species identification
  • Waterlogged plant remains