Ancient RNA: A Whole New World of Possibilities for Paleopathology?

imgres-3I just wrote a piece for BiteSize Bio called Ancient RNA: Does Next Generation Sequencing Offer a New Window into the Past?

In it, I describe an article by Fordyce et al that came out earlier this year in PLoS ONE: Deep Sequencing of RNA from Ancient Maize Kernels. This group of researchers was able to obtain RNA sequences from 700-year-old corn kernels. Neat, right? I was really surprised that this paper didn’t get more attention when it came out. I think it’s basically been taken for granted that studying ancient RNA just isn’t possible, due to RNA’s fragility–so a paper showing that aRNA studies may actually be feasible was pretty exciting in my opinion.

Tom Gilbert, the senior author of the article, told me they have encountered some skepticism regarding the results, because the idea that RNA can’t survive over long periods of time has become so ingrained. Maybe that’s why there hasn’t been more chatter. I thought the paper was pretty thorough, though, in ruling out issues such as contamination. I have to say–I’m a believer so far!

Which leads me to wonder… if you can amplify ancient RNA from ancient corn kernels, is it also possible to do so using other types of samples? Tooth pulp, for example, which should also provide a relatively protected environment? If so, perhaps we could look at infection with RNA viruses (e.g., coronaviruses, influenza, hep C) in times past. Or maybe even gene expression under various conditions. The possibilities seem endless! I’m really curious to see where this line of research goes. Is this just the beginning?