Scientists devise clever way to test old manuscripts’ DNA


Encountering obstacles is a big part of life and something that we encounter every day. However, there are a lot of things that can sometimes appear too difficult, and we regularly back down in the face of obstacles that are too hard. But, the beauty of science is that it presents new ways of tackling old problems and allowing us to conquer some of those obstacles head-on.

And this is just what happened with a group of scientists in the UK, who were trying to crack one of their toughest obstacles yet. They were poring over an ancient manuscript taken from the Dark Ages, and trying to find out as much information as they could. Unfortunately, they were not allowed to take parchment samples, so here is what they did instead.

What they were trying to find

Ancient manuscripts are fascinating for a number of reasons. First off, they contain information about things that happened long ago that are of great interest. Secondly, they have been in ancient surroundings and might have been picked up materials that we would find fascinating. This started out when archaeologist Matthew Collins was attempting to extract DNA from animal bones at a Viking settlement. The bones had decayed, so he was out of luck – but he then realized that the genetic material may still exist on the animal skins that made up the ancient books in the archives.

Inventive ideas

Instead of taking samples of the parchment, Collins and his team decided to analyze minute crumbs from erasers, left behind by archivists. This is an inventive and unique approach and a genius way of getting to analyze the samples, and getting around the rules that were in place. PVC erasers are routinely used to remove staining and damage from historical documents, and of course, the friction caused by using them removes molecules of dirt that can be analyzed. These molecules of dirt were collected and taken for testing to try to reveal more about the DNA.

What they found

After analyzing the samples, some of which they dated back to the year 990, they were able to get a large enough sample to run DNA testing. This is what they had been attempting to do before, but without much success. The tests this time revealed 1,000-year-old genetic materials from animals like sheep and cows. And the samples were so good and intact, that they managed to find out the actual origins of the cows and sheep. They noted that they were mostly female and close to the equivalent of Norwegian Reds.

This was a really clever way of getting the information the group needed, and being able to bypass the rule that they weren’t allowed to sample the manuscript. It’s amazing what DNA analysis can do these days, and what we can find out from analyzing even the most unexpected of things. It’s pretty clear that, without the use of DNA analysis, and some very inventive thinking, the team would not have gotten the answers they needed.