Prof. Terry Brown and Dr David Penney

In our latest podcast, Episode 3, we centred around research done here in the faculty related to the magnificent film, Jurassic Park. However, as you can imagine, the science behind Jurassic Park is not the main focus for the researchers themselves! We felt that it would be unfair to both Professor Terry Brown and Dr Dave Penney, who suffered at the hands of negative results in their latest paper, to not be able to discuss all the interesting information  that CAN be gathered about the past – even if ancient DNA in insects in amber doesn’t like to hang around – either from amber palaeobiology or from biomolecular archaeology.

Who's whoProfessor Terry Brown tells us about how and why researchers mistook human DNA for dinosaur DNA, how we can extract ancient DNA from not only prehistoric humans, but also extinct human species, including the Neanderthals. He discusses how we can also get ancient DNA from the bones and teeth of animals, for example hyenas that used to live in Britain – I was completely unaware hyenas were ever in Britain – and this can provide clues into their relationship with the European hyenas.  He tells us about how we can sequence the DNA of ancient bacteria that fester in the human body, be it in the gut microbiome or plague that forms and hardens on our teeth. This can give us clues into what humans were eating and how their diet has changed. Finally, he discusses how we can also access a vast amount of information about human activity from plant remains, allowing us to study the history, origin and spread of agriculture.

Rove-beetle-%28Col%20copal-Scytodes%20specimen%29Dr Dave Penney, a creepy crawly enthusiast, talks in his interview about how we can use fossilised insects in amber to not only study the past, but also study the present and potentially the future. This is due to the information that can be gathered. The way in which the insects are encapsulated in tree resin – which eventually forms amber – is extremely rapid. This allows scientists like Dave Penney to observe behaviours that occurred in the past and when they originated, but can also give us insights into behaviours that are present today, that may be to difficult to observe in situ. Equally, he discusses how we can gain knowledge on the biogeographical distribution of insects trapped in amber in the face of a changing world – including climate change and deforestation. This may give us clues as to how the insects may re-distribute in the future. We also discuss how copal can be a useful resource due to its possibilty to preserve present insect biodiversity. Find out more about Dave’s work on his website.

Here is a cool CT scan movie clip of Dave’s research using this technique to look at phoresy behaviour captured in Dominican amber!


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