Even minimal exposure to forensic science on shows like CSI and NCIS will impress upon a viewer what a whopping big deal DNA analysis is. It’s the opposite of circumstantial evidence: undeniable proof of someone’s identity that is impossible to fake, short of swapping out one sample for another. The technique may be applied to murder victims or long-dead English kings or illegitimate children and their custody-dodging fathers—any subject from which intact genetic information can be extracted—and that's what makes DNA as valuable a tool in anthropological study as it is in police investigations. For a long-dead subject, DNA has an expiration date, but when exactly is it?
The entire formula for human life is encoded in the sub-microscopic molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid, and has been throughout all stages of evolution. Like fingerprints, genetic code is particular to an individual, which makes it a unique identifier in the absence of other information, like modern dental records. DNA, however, is fragile, and breaks down over time. How long the decomposition process takes will vary with the circumstances under which it is found. Take, for example, if DNA is exposed to the elements: Like the human body itself, DNA decays with increasing rapidity in the presence of heat, water, sunlight, and oxygen. Those essential conditions of life also speed the process of death, potentially rendering DNA useless for analysis in a matter of weeks.
Scientists have estimated that under the most ideal conditions, DNA can theoretically survive for a maximum of one million years. Although a team of researchers recently claimed to have discovered 419 million-year-old genetic material belonging to prehistoric bacteria in the Michigan Basin, others in the field have loudly contested the claim, especially in light of an earlier sample thought to be 250 million years old, but later proven contaminated by the presence of modern DNA. The oldest actual DNA samples hail from Greenland (the icy one, as opposed to Iceland, the green one), extracted from beneath a mile of ice, a “perfect, natural freezer” for DNA preservation. The 450,000 to 800,000-year-old samples provide evidence of green life on the now largely barren landmass.
As far as human genetic material goes, the record for oldest Neanderthal DNA is held by a 100,000-year-old sample found in a Belgian cave. The longest-lasting sample of human DNA was discovered in northeastern Spain, and boasts a survival age of 7000 years. In both cases, techniques pioneered by Dr. Rhonda Roby allowed researchers to use mitochondrial DNA rather than the type found in the cell nucleus; although mitochondrial DNA only contains only partial genetic information, it provides sufficient evidence for identification and is present in greater abundance than nuclear DNA, increasing its odds of surviving.
How long does DNA last? The short answer is that it’s complicated, and determined by a number of unpredictable factors such as weather and the organism’s final resting place. Your DNA may be the molecular legacy you leave behind, but once you’re dead, there’s not really much you can do about it.