Under certain conditions small amounts of DNA can survive for long periods of time and can be used as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) substrates for the study of phylogenetic relationships and population genetics of extinct plants and animals, including hominids. Because of extensive DNA degradation, these studies are limited to species that lived within the past 10(4)-10(5) years (Late Pleistocene), although DNA sequences from 10(6) years have been reported. Ancient DNA (aDNA) has been used to study phylogenetic relationships of protists, fungi, algae, plants, and higher eukaryotes such as extinct horses, cave bears, the marsupial wolf, the moa, and Neanderthal. In the past few years, this technology has been extended to the study of infectious disease in ancient Egyptian and South American mummies, the dietary habits of ancient animals, and agricultural practices and population dynamics of early native Americans. Hence, ancient DNA contains information pertinent to numerous fields of study including evolution, population genetics, ecology, climatology, medicine, archeology, and behavior. The major obstacles to the study of aDNA are its extremely low yield, contamination with modern DNA, and extensive degradation. In the course of this review, we will discuss the current aDNA literature describing the importance of aDNA studies as they relate to important biological questions and the difficulties associated with extracting useful information from highly degraded and damaged substrates derived from limited sources. In addition, we will present some of our own preliminary and published data on mechanisms of DNA degradation and some speculative thoughts on strategies for repair and restoration of aDNA.