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Utility of arsenic-treated bird skins for DNA extraction

Till Töpfer12*, Anita Gamauf34 and Elisabeth Haring45

Author Affiliations

1 Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre (BiK-F), Senckenberganlage 25, 60325 Frankfurt/M., Germany

2 Senckenberg Natural History Collections Dresden, Museum of Zoology, Königsbrücker Landstrasse 159, 01109 Dresden, Germany

3 Museum of Natural History Vienna, 1st Zoological Department, Bird Collection, Burgring 7, 1010 Vienna, Austria

4 University of Vienna, Department of Evolutionary Biology, Althanstrasse 14, 1090 Vienna, Austria

5 Museum of Natural History Vienna, 1st Zoological Department, Laboratory of Molecular Systematics, Burgring 7, 1010 Vienna, Austria

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BMC Research Notes 2011, 4:197  doi:10.1186/1756-0500-4-197

Published: 15 June 2011



Natural history museums receive a rapidly growing number of requests for tissue samples from preserved specimens for DNA-based studies. Traditionally, dried vertebrate specimens were treated with arsenic because of its toxicity and insect-repellent effect. Arsenic has negative effects on in vivo DNA repair enzymes and consequently may inhibit PCR performance. In bird collections, foot pad samples are often requested since the feet were not regularly treated with arsenic and because they are assumed to provide substantial amounts of DNA. However, the actual influence of arsenic on DNA analyses has never been tested.


PCR success of both foot pad and body skin samples was significantly lower in arsenic-treated samples. In general, foot pads performed better than body skin samples. Moreover, PCR success depends on collection date in which younger samples yielded better results. While the addition of arsenic solution to the PCR mixture had a clear negative effect on PCR performance after the threshold of 5.4 μg/μl, such high doses of arsenic are highly unlikely to occur in dried zoological specimens.


While lower PCR success in older samples might be due to age effects and/or DNA damage through arsenic treatment, our results show no inhibiting effect on DNA polymerase. We assume that DNA degradation proceeds more rapidly in thin tissue layers with low cell numbers that are susceptible to external abiotic influences. In contrast, in thicker parts of a specimen, such as foot pads, the outermost horny skin may act as an additional barrier. Since foot pads often performed better than body skin samples, the intention to preserve morphologically important structures of a specimen still conflicts with the aim to obtain optimal PCR success. Thus, body skin samples from recently collected specimens should be considered as alternative sources of DNA.