DNA on parchment

Sarah Zang writes briefly about using DNA in old books and parchment to study the past, “The Lab Discovering DNA in Old Books” in The Atlantic. It’s frustratingly short, but interesting:

The team has since sampled 5,000 animals from parchment…. They’ve found that a type of ultrafine parchment, sometimes purported to come from squirrels or rabbits, actually comes from the typical cow, sheep, or goat—and that the thinness of the parchment is the result of the parchment makers’ skill. They’ve compared the genomes of cows in parchment with that of modern ones, finding similarities to Norwegian Reds and Holsteins.

There are a number of other interesting details in the article, for example this comment about library conservation and destructive sampling (which I’ve encountered myself when trying to date patination on a plaster bust):

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.

And there’s a potential investigation into the sources of beeswax used in sealing wax that might be underway. (minor edit for typo 3/2/19)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *