The DNA laboratory carries out research projects in various evolutionary fields, including systematics, phylogeny, phylogeography, and population genetics. Furthermore, applied investigations (e.g., genetic monitoring or genetic species identification) are carried out.
The Research Group for Molecular Systematics (formerly: Chemo-Systematics) was founded in 1992 as a 'DNA-laboratory' of the First Zoological Department (Vertebrate Department) in response to the increasing importance of molecular methods in field of taxonomy, systematics and phylogeny. At that time many such laboratories were established in natural history museums around the world. In 2013 the infrastructure was extended by a clean room, including UV-radiation and filter systems, which enables ancient DNA analysis of the highest standard.
The principles of molecular systematics are based on the fact that the similarity of molecules, above all the DNA molecule, reflects the degree of relatedness between taxa. In classical systematics taxonomists compare morphological characters, whereas the basis of molecular systematics is molecular traits, e.g., differences in DNA sequences.
There are two main reasons why morphological / anatomical traits often are insufficient to resolve specific taxonomic questions: i) they often are small in number, and ii) homoplasy, that is multiple independent development of characters. The analysis of DNA sequences, on the other hand, enables the comparison of a large number of characters. Thus, incongruities caused by homoplastic traits are of little importance. Another advantage of molecular systematics is that even smallest tissue samples are enough to isolate sufficient amounts of DNA. Furthermore, the molecular analysis of tissues from museum collections has become possible. Therefore even rare or endangered taxa can be included into molecular studies. Nevertheless, one should be aware that the phylogeny of a group of organisms can only be reconstructed in a synthesis of classical systematics (morphological, anatomical, ethological characters) and molecular data.