Scientists Use Ancient Parchment DNA To Study Agricultural Development

Chuck Bednar for – Your Universe Online
Millions of documents currently stored in archives throughout the world could provide clues to tracing agricultural development throughout the centuries thanks to a new technique of analyzing DNA found in ancient parchments, researchers from Trinity College Dublin and the University of York report in a new study.
In a paper published Monday in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, the study authors report that state-of-the-art genetic sequencing techniques make it possible to obtain vital information from the DNA of the parchment on which historical texts are written.
The researchers were able to use these methods to extract and analyze DNA and protein from tiny samples of 17th and 18th century parchments, and collected enough information to allow them to determine which types of creatures from which the parchment sheets were made. They then compared the genomes of those animals to their modern relatives to discover how their genetic diversity was influenced by the expansion of agriculture.

This is an imaged parchment document from Yarburgh Muniments Lancashire Deeds YM. D. Lancs Jan. 13-14, 1576/7. Credit: By permission of The Borthwick Institute for Archives'

The information gives scientists a new resource from which to study the development of livestock husbandry across the centuries, Trinity College Dublin Professor of Population Genetics Daniel Bradley and his colleagues report in the recently-published study. The work was funded by a grant from the European Research Council.
“This pilot project suggests that parchments are an amazing resource for genetic studies that consider agricultural development over the centuries,” Bradley said in a statement. “There must be millions stored away in libraries, archives, solicitors’ offices and even in our own attics. After all, parchment was the writing material of choice for thousands of years, going back to the Dead Sea Scrolls.”
“Wool was essentially the oil of times gone by, so knowing how human change affected the genetics of sheep through the ages can tell us a huge amount about how agricultural practices evolved,” he added.
Bradley and his colleagues from Trinity and the Centre for Excellence in Mass Spectrometry at York extracted DNA and collagen (protein) from two 2 cm x 2 cm samples of parchment provided by the Borthwick Institute for Archives.
One of the samples showed a strong affinity with northern Britain, specifically the region in which current black-faced breeds such as Swaledale, Rough Fell and Scottish Blackface are common, the researchers explained. The other sample showed a closer affinity with the Midlands and southern Britain where the livestock Improvements of the later 18th century were most active.
If similar levels of endogenous DNA content can be found in other parchments, the resulting genetic sequencing could provide new insights into the breeding history of sheep and other types of livestock before, during and after agricultural improvements that resulted in the emergence of regional breeds of sheep during the 18th century.
“We believe the two specimens derive from an unimproved northern hill-sheep typical in Yorkshire in the 17th century, and from a sheep derived from the ‘improved’ flocks, such as those bred in the Midlands by Robert Bakewell, which were spreading through England in the 18th century,” Matthew Collins, head of York’s BioArCh bioarchaeology center, said.
“This pilot project suggests that parchments are an amazing resource and there are millions stored away in libraries, archives, solicitors’ offices and private hands. They can give us significant data about the source animal and using them we can learn an enormous amount about the development of agriculture in the British Isles,” he added. “We want to understand the history of agriculture in these islands over the last 1,000 years and with this breath-taking resource we can.”

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