School of Life Sciences | Ask A Biologist

dropdown arrow downdropdown arrow upshow/hide menu

Ask A Biologist graphic

The Hunt for DNA

show/hide words to know

  • Enzyme: a protein that changes the speed of chemical reactions inside a cell.
  • Extract: to draw or pull something out (especially from another material).

Indiana Jane must have permission to work with each bone. When she is ready to extract DNA, she cuts a small piece of bone or tooth and crushes it into powder. It looks a little like flour you can bake with.

Bone processing montage

In the bone powder are millions of bone cells and millions of cells from other organisms, including bacteria and parasites. A copy of the DNA is located inside every single cell.

Bone powderNext, she needs to crack open the cell walls so that the DNA spills out. A special enzyme does this job. It is a lot like cracking open an egg into a bowl, except that it is all microscopic.

But DNA is not the only thing inside a cell. When the cell walls are cracked, other cell parts come out as well. To separate the DNA from the other parts of the cell, the next step is the cleaning step. Indiana Jane must capture only the DNA but leave all of the “dirt” behind.

When the DNA is clean, it is ready for analysis.  Indiana Jane hopes we have captured more than just human DNA. This is where she hopes the microbe DNA will be. 


Skull section image via Wikimedia Commons by Phyzome.

Skull midsaggital section

Skulls and other bones can teach us a lot more about our ancestors than you might think. 

Share to Google Classroom

Be part of Ask A Biologist

by volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a Volunteer page to get the process started.

dropdown arrow downdropdown arrow up  Learn More

Skull midsaggital section

Skulls and other bones can teach us a lot more about our ancestors than you might think. 

Share to Google Classroom

Be part of Ask A Biologist

by volunteering, or simply sending us feedback on the site. Scientists, teachers, writers, illustrators, and translators are all important to the program. If you are interested in helping with the website we have a Volunteer page to get the process started.