My name is Eva Fernandez-Dominguez, I am an Associate Professor in ancient DNA in the Department of Archaeology at Durham University, and manager of the ancient and modern DNA laboratories. These labs were designed before my appointment in 2015, but they were finished in early 2016, and I was tasked with equipping them, implementing regulations of access and laboratory protocols and training students and technicians that wanted to make use of the facilities. The labs have been fully functioning since the summer of 2016 and have hosted several MSc, PhD and visiting students during these years. I am mainly interested in the analysis of prehistoric human DNA to decipher population movements, population admixture and assessing the role of kinship in funerary arrangements, so most of the projects we run in the lab deal with human DNA. However, we have also worked with other animal species like flies, cattle and sheep in collaboration with (colleagues from the department and other institutions) other members of the Department and external colleagues.
Managing the two DNA labs is not an easy task, and I receive great support from our Senior Archaeology Technician Dr Beth Upex and our recently appointed Bioarchaeology technician Dr Tina Jakob. The laboratory facilities and specialised equipment require regular inspection checks and the labs need to be fully decontaminated on a regular basis. Moreover, many things can go wrong, and in recent years we have had to deal, for example, with the effect of power cuts and water leaks. Despite this, I find this aspect of my job extremely rewarding, as it makes it possible for others to use the labs and produce results that can be trusted. This is the case of Emily, who is currently working in our DNA laboratories for her MSc dissertation.
My name is Emily Moise, and I am currently undertaking an MSc in Bioarchaeology (Biomolecular Archaeology strand), examining ancient human DNA from the Roman period. My undergraduate degree was in modern DNA, so I had quite a shock when I first entered the ancient DNA labs! Although the methods are very similar to what I am used to, ancient DNA requires much more gear. Contamination is a big issue we need to combat, so all our lab work is carried out in full suits, boot covers, 2 layers of gloves, hairnets, goggles and masks.
The lab has different rooms, each of them dedicated to one part of the process. The rooms have an air -flow system that ensures no particles enter when you move from the lobby into the labs. We also use UV light to sterilize our outfits and materials. These factors are somewhat challenging but working with ancient DNA offers some amazing opportunities. As bioarcheologists, we have the unique honour of diving into our cultural and migratory history at the most intricate level. In my opinion, DNA is super cool, so I am very happy I am able to combine culture and science every day.
The project I am working on is part of a dual collaboration with the University of Vienna / the Vienna Museum and the University of Ghent in Belgium. The Vienna Museum is organizing an exhibit for individuals buried in a Roman era cemetery in the city-centre of Vienna, and they would like to have a segment explaining the genetic background of these individuals, so residents of Vienna can learn about the past of their city. Due to time constraints, I am only examining a specific portion of the DNA: the HVI segment of the mitochondrial genome. My aim is to sequence this region of the DNA and, after the lab work is finished, I will then compare the DNA sequences to look for possible maternal kinship among individuals and I will classify them in groups (“haplogroups”) to get an indication of the maternal ancestral history of each individual. I will also compare the results obtained with other publicly available samples from the same and nearby geographic regions to learn a bit more about population movements and population admixture at the time.
A challenge of ancient DNA is that…well, it is ancient. DNA degrades over time, so not every sample will be successfully sequenced.
I am very happy I have been able to conduct this research project for my dissertation and get plenty of hands-on experience in the analysis of ancient DNA, especially considering the Covid-19 restrictions that have been in place this year.
A list and description of the labs of the Department of Archaeology at Durham University can be found here: