Characterising the potential of sheep wool for ancient DNA analyses

  • Luise Ørsted Brandt
  • Lena Diana Tranekjer
  • Ulla Mannering
  • Maj Ringgaard
  • Karin Margarita Frei
  • Eske Willerslev
  • Margarita Gleba
  • M. Thomas P. GilbertEmail author
Original Paper


The use of wool derived from sheep (Ovis aries) hair shafts is widespread in ancient and historic textiles. Given that hair can represent a valuable source of ancient DNA, wool may represent a valuable genetic archive for studies on the domestication of the sheep. However, both the quality and content of DNA in hair shafts are known to vary, and it is possible that common treatments of wool such as dyeing may negatively impact the DNA. Using quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR), we demonstrate that in general, short fragments of both mitochondrial and single-copy nuclear DNA can be PCR-amplified from wool derived from a variety of breeds, regardless of the body location or natural pigmentation. Furthermore, although DNA can be PCR-amplified from wool dyed with one of four common plant dyes (tansy, woad, madder, weld), the use of mordants such as alum or iron leads to considerable DNA degradation. Lastly, we demonstrate that mtDNA at least can be PCR-amplified, cloned and sequenced from a range of archaeological and historic Danish, Flemmish and Greenlandic wool textile samples. In summary, our data suggest that wool offers a promising source for future ancient mitochondrial DNA studies.


Ancient DNA Mitochondria Nuclear Sheep Textile Wool 



The authors would like to thank Margit Petersen, who dyed and mordanted some of the wool samples used in this study, and the Centre for Historical Archaeological Research and Communication, Lejre, for their collaboration during the work. We would also like to thank Poul Otto Nielsen, Jetter Arneborg and Irene Skals (The National Museum of Denmark) for generously providing access to the ancient samples and their subsampling, and Roberto Fortuna (National Museum of Denmark) for the photographs used in Fig. 1. MTPG and UM would like to thank the Danish National Research Foundation and Basic Research Foundations for funding the research.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Luise Ørsted Brandt
    • 1
  • Lena Diana Tranekjer
    • 1
  • Ulla Mannering
    • 2
  • Maj Ringgaard
    • 3
  • Karin Margarita Frei
    • 4
  • Eske Willerslev
    • 1
  • Margarita Gleba
    • 5
  • M. Thomas P. Gilbert
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Centre for GeoGenetics, Natural History Museum of DenmarkUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagen KDenmark
  2. 2.Centre for Textile Research, The National Museum of DenmarkCopenhagen KDenmark
  3. 3.Conservation Department, National Museum of DenmarkKongens LyngbyDenmark
  4. 4.Centre for Textile Research, SAXO InstituteUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagen SDenmark
  5. 5.Institute of ArchaeologyUniversity College LondonLondonUK

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