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Photo: University of York
A UK lab is learning what the DNA in old books has to tell us about the past. Even the beeswax used in seals is rich with data, including the flowers that grew in that region year to year.

Do you know what set you on your career? As an oldest child, I spent a certain amount of time explaining things, and I liked making a school for my dolls. Although I ended up as an editor for many years, I started my worklife as a teacher and am now back to volunteer work as a teacher.

The scientist in the following story got launched on his passion after watching the movie Jaws.

Sarah Zhang writes at the Atlantic, “It was in the archives of the Archbishop of York that Matthew Collins had an epiphany: He was surrounded by millions of animal skins.

“Another person might say they were surrounded by books and manuscripts written on parchment, which is made from skins, usually of cows and sheep. Collins, however, had been trying to make sense of animal-bone fragments from archaeological digs, and he began to think about the advantages of studying animal skins, already cut into rectangles and arranged neatly on a shelf. …

“In recent years, archaeologists and historians have awakened to the potential of ancient DNA extracted from human bones and teeth. DNA evidence has enriched — and complicated — stories of prehistoric human migrations. It has provided tantalizing clues to epidemics such as the black death. It has identified the remains of King Richard III, found under a parking lot. But Collins isn’t just interested in human remains. He’s interested in the things these humans made; the animals they bred, slaughtered, and ate; and the economies they created.

“That’s why he was studying DNA from the bones of livestock — and why his lab is now at the forefront of studying DNA from objects such as parchment, birch-bark tar, and beeswax. … With ample genetic data, you might reconstruct a more complete picture of life hundreds of years in the past.

“Collins splits his time between Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen, and it’s hard to nail down exactly what kind of -ologist he is. He has a knack for gathering experts as diverse as parchment specialists, veterinarians, geneticists, archivists, economic historians, and protein scientists (his own background). ‘All I do is connect people together,’ he said. …

“Collins began his scientific career studying marine biology, thanks to a formative teenage viewing of Jaws. He specialized first in marine fossils and, later, in the ancient proteins hidden inside them. This turned out to be a dead end. For the most part, the fossils were too old and the proteins no longer intact enough to study. He was forced to look at younger and younger material, until he crossed from paleontology into archaeology. He applied the techniques of protein analysis to pottery shards, in which he found milk proteins that hinted at the diet of the people who used those pots.

“Collins quickly realized that DNA held even more potential than ancient proteins, which can be ‘a blunt tool compared to DNA.’ The DNA of any single animal is, after all, a library coding for all the proteins their cells can make. …

“When Collins embarked on the parchment project, he gathered a team that included geneticists as well as archivists, bookmakers, and historians.

“It didn’t take long for the group to hit their first culture clash. In science and archaeology, destructive sampling is at least tolerated, if not encouraged. But book conservators were not going to let people in white coats come in and cut up their books. Instead of giving up or fighting through it, Sarah Fiddyment, a postdoctoral research fellow working with Collins, shadowed conservationists for several weeks. She saw that they used white Staedtler erasers to clean the manuscripts, and wondered whether that rubbed off enough DNA to do the trick. It did; the team found a way to extract DNA and proteins from eraser crumbs, a compromise that satisfied everyone.”

Read how the research evolved, here.

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