DNA adsorbs and binds on clay minerals, which provides protection to the DNA against degradation by nucleases but does not eliminate the ability of bound DNA to transform cells. These observations support the concept that ‘cryptic genes’ can persist in the environment when bound on particles and that the genes could subsequently be expressed if an appropriate host was transformed. The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was used to amplify free and bound DNA from Bacillus subtilis and calf thymus. DNA bound on montmorillonite, but not on kaolinite, was amplified. However, amplification occurred when kaolinite was pretreated with sodium metaphosphate. DNA was not released from the clays during the amplification procedure. The type of clay (e.g. its structure and charges) affected amplification. Because DNA bound on clay is protected against biodegradation, the ability to amplify DNA bound on clay by the PCR has palaeontological, archaeological, and anthropological implications for the detection of ‘ancient’ DNA, as well as for monitoring the persistence of recombinant DNA introduced to the environment in genetically modified organisms.