Keratinous tissues such as nail, hair, horn, scales and feather have been used as a source of DNA for over 20 years. Particular benefits of such tissues include the ease with which they can be sampled, the relative stability of DNA in such tissues once sampled, and, in the context of ancient genetic analyses, the fact that sampling generally causes minimal visual damage to valuable specimens. Even when freshly sampled, however, the DNA quantity and quality in the fully keratinized parts of such tissues is extremely poor in comparison to other tissues such as blood and muscle - although little systematic research has been undertaken to characterize how such degradation may relate to sample source. In this review paper we present the current understanding of the quality and limitations of DNA in two key keratinous tissues, nail and hair. The findings indicate that although some fragments of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA appear to be present in almost all hair and nail samples, the quality of DNA, both in quantity and length of amplifiable DNA fragments, vary considerably not just by species, but by individual, and even within individual between hair types.
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