Scientists seek DNA in manuscripts

TCD researchers believe parchments made from animal skins could hold clues to past

 Parchments such as this 14th century archbishop’s register hold clues to ancient DNA of animals. Photograph: By permission of the Borthwick Institute for Archives

Parchments such as this 14th century archbishop’s register hold clues to ancient DNA of animals. Photograph: By permission of the Borthwick Institute for Archives

 

Documents similar to the Book of Kells and other ancient parchments may soon reveal more secrets.

Scientists at Trinity College Dublin and the University of York are collaborating on a study to prove they can extract genetic material from centuries-old writing materials made from animal skin.

“This is part of a quite big project for which I received funding from the European Research Council, ” said Dan Bradley, professor of population genetics at Trinity College Dublin.

The main project involves trying to recover ancient DNA extracted from the bones of cattle, sheep and goats who died thousands of years ago. The idea is to map out the genetic changes that have taken place in these animals over the past 10,000 years.

He said it was very difficult to get good DNA from old bones exposed to the elements.

“We figured that one source for DNA from these animals would be parchment, because it is made from animal skins. ”

He linked up with Prof Matthew Collins at the University of York and postdoctoral researcher Dr Matthew Teasdale at Trinity, and the team has published the results in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.