Ancient Biomolecules and Evolutionary Inference

Annu Rev Biochem. 2018 Jun 20;87:1029-1060. doi: 10.1146/annurev-biochem-062917-012002. Epub 2018 Apr 25.


Over the past three decades, studies of ancient biomolecules-particularly ancient DNA, proteins, and lipids-have revolutionized our understanding of evolutionary history. Though initially fraught with many challenges, today the field stands on firm foundations. Researchers now successfully retrieve nucleotide and amino acid sequences, as well as lipid signatures, from progressively older samples, originating from geographic areas and depositional environments that, until recently, were regarded as hostile to long-term preservation of biomolecules. Sampling frequencies and the spatial and temporal scope of studies have also increased markedly, and with them the size and quality of the data sets generated. This progress has been made possible by continuous technical innovations in analytical methods, enhanced criteria for the selection of ancient samples, integrated experimental methods, and advanced computational approaches. Here, we discuss the history and current state of ancient biomolecule research, its applications to evolutionary inference, and future directions for this young and exciting field.

Keywords: ancient DNA; ancient genomics; ancient lipids; ancient proteins; paleogenomics; paleoproteomics.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • DNA, Ancient*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Extinction, Biological
  • Fossils
  • Genomics
  • Humans
  • Lipids / genetics
  • Paleontology
  • Phylogeny
  • Proteins / genetics
  • Proteomics


  • DNA, Ancient
  • Lipids
  • Proteins