miRNAs in ancient tissue specimens of the Tyrolean Iceman
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The analysis of nucleic acids in ancient samples is largely limited to DNA. Small noncoding RNAs (microRNAs) are known to be evolutionary conserved and stable. To gain knowledge on miRNAs measured from ancient samples, we profiled microRNAs in cryoconserved mummies. First, we established the approach on a World War One warrior, the “Kaiserjäger”, which has been preserved for almost one century. Then, we profiled seven ancient tissue specimens including skeletal muscle, stomach mucosa, stomach content and two corpus organ tissues of the 5,300-year-old copper age mummy Iceman and compared these profiles to the presence of organ-specific miRNAs in modern tissues. Our analyses suggest the presence of specific miRNAs in the different Iceman’s tissues. Of 1,066 analyzed human miRNAs, 31 were discovered across all biopsies and 87 miRNAs were detected only in a single sample. To check for potential microbiological contaminations, all miRNAs detected in Iceman samples and not present in ancient samples were mapped to 14,582 bacterial and viral genomes. We detected few hits (3.9% of miRNAs compared with 3.6% of miRNAs). Interestingly, the miRNAs with higher abundance across all ancient tissues were significantly enriched for Guanine (P value of 10–13) and Cytosine (P value of 10–7). The same pattern was observed for modern tissues. Comparing miRNAs measured from ancient organs to modern tissue patterns highlighted significant similarities, e.g., for miRNAs present in the muscle. Our first comprehensive analysis of microRNAs in ancient human tissues indicates that these stable molecules can be detected in tissue specimens after 5,300 years.