© Stephen Hird/Reuters/CorbisDigging deep into history: A model of a hobbit-sized species' skull, whose teeth researchers will drill into for DNA.
Scientists are planning an attempt to extract DNA from the "hobbit" Homo floresiensis,
the 1-meter-tall extinct distant relative of modern humans that was unearthed in Indonesia, following a study that suggests problems in standard sampling methods in ancient-DNA research could have thwarted previous efforts.
This year, geneticists at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA (ACAD) at the University of Adelaide hope to recover DNA from a roughly 18,000-year-old H. floresiensis
tooth, which was excavated in 2009 from the Liang Bua site on the Indonesian island of Flores.
The premolar has been kept cold, and has been handled as little as possible to prevent contamination with modern DNA. But little, if any, of the ancient DNA is likely to have survived the heat and moisture of the tropics, and any that has may be highly fragmented.
Tony Djubiantono, director of the Indonesian National Centre for Archaeology in Jakarta, where the tooth is held, says that developments in DNA extraction techniques could overcome previous sampling problems, and have exciting potential for understanding the evolutionary history of H. floresiensis.
If the DNA can be extracted, comparing its sequence to that of other species could settle disputes over classification. For instance, Peter Brown, a paleoanthropologist at the University of New England in Armidale, Australia, who described and named the species in 2004, is rethinking his initial classification. At first he put the species in the human genus Homo,
but he now suspects that the hobbit's ancestors left Africa before Homo
evolved so the species could belong to a different or new genus.