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The long-term preservation of DNA in ancient frozen environments

Background:The search of life biomarkers preserved in the environment is key to life detection research in extra-planetary context but also highly relevant to reconstruct eco-system evolution over geological timescales on Earth. Frozen and anoxic conditions provide the best conditions for long-term preservation of life and biomolecules, and habitats such as deep ancient sediments from the Arctic are a real treasure trove of past life and its remnants. To tackle this scientific challenge requires an interdisciplinary approach, with synergies between paleogenetics, molecular biology and biophysics.

Project description: This Master project is part of ongoing research on biomarker detection for space exploration (Dr. Elsaesser, Freie Universität (FU)) and ancient DNA/microorganisms in cryo-environments (Dr. Perfumo, Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI)). Starting from a collection of DNA samples extracted from ancient frozen sediments (>700,000 years old), the main aim is to investigate its preservation over geological timescales by applying a variety of spectroscopy techniques (e.g. FTIR, Raman). DNA damage and/or repair will be also examined directly within cells of ancient microorganisms.

Overall, this Master project will offer the opportunity to gain experience in the use of advanced spectroscopic techniques, learn on DNA and biomarker long-term preservation and get familiar with interdisciplinary research.


  • Interest in cross-field research at the interface between physics and biology
  • Knowledge of spectroscopic techniques; previous laboratory experience is desirable
  • A good mix of curiosity, enthusiasm and hard-working attitude
  • Good proficiency in spoken and written English


Start: November 2020 (negotiable)