A Picture of the Past for a Better Future
McMaster anthropologist Dr. Hendrik Poinar, Canada Research Chair in Paleogenetics, is doing some time-travelling. Poinar hasn't built a time machine to the future, though; he's built a million-dollar lab that offers a window into the past. And he’s using the information he gathers to help inform the present—and the future.
With new technologies and methods increasing our ability to extract and interpret DNA sequence information covering a stretch of history in a particular area, Poinar is able to push back the clock and recover genetic sequences from samples up to several million years old, from diverse climates and conditions throughout the world.
Poinar’s research focuses on designing and applying new extraction and repair strategies for ancient DNA buried within fossil samples. The DNA is then amplified and sequenced. From this, Poinar can gather genetic information to place the DNA/RNA sequences into evolutionary frameworks to answer particular questions.
For example, work in Poinar’s laboratory with the oldest known HIV-1 samples from 1959 Africa is aimed towards answering two outstanding sets of research questions. First, when did HIV-1 make the jump to humans, and what was the source of the transfer? Second, will having a more complete understanding, by looking at direct ancestral HIV/SIV sequences, of the pace of the evolution and how it developed, help researchers create better HIV vaccines?
Poinar’s work will lead to better understanding of the evolution of pandemic infections, thereby helping researchers track the spread of future infectious disease. It will also have major impacts on the recovery of DNA from forensic, archaeological and fossil samples, letting us look into the past and watch evolution in real time.