Genomics and museum specimens



Nearly 25 years ago, Allan Wilson and colleagues isolated DNA sequences from museum specimens of kangaroo rats (Dipodomys panamintinus) and compared these sequences with those from freshly collected animals (Thomas et al. 1990). The museum specimens had been collected up to 78 years earlier, so the two samples provided a direct temporal comparison of patterns of genetic variation. This was not the first time DNA sequences had been isolated from preserved material, but it was the first time it had been carried out with a population sample. Population geneticists often try to make inferences about the influence of historical processes such as selection, drift, mutation and migration on patterns of genetic variation in the present. The work of Wilson and colleagues was important in part because it suggested a way in which population geneticists could actually study genetic change in natural populations through time, much the same way that experimentalists can do with artificial populations in the laboratory. Indeed, the work of Thomas et al. (1990) spawned dozens of studies in which museum specimens were used to compare historical and present-day genetic diversity (reviewed in Wandeler et al. 2007). All of these studies, however, were limited by the same fundamental problem: old DNA is degraded into short fragments. As a consequence, these studies mostly involved PCR amplification of short templates, usually short stretches of mitochondrial DNA or microsatellites. In this issue, Bi et al. (2013) report a breakthrough that should open the door to studies of genomic variation in museum specimens. They used target enrichment (exon capture) and next-generation (Illumina) sequencing to compare patterns of genetic variation in historic and present-day population samples of alpine chipmunks (Tamias alpinus) (Fig. 1). The historic samples came from specimens collected in 1915, so the temporal span of this comparison is nearly 100 years.