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The Secrets of Parchment: Hints of Agriculture History

Dec 08, 2014 05:52 PM EST

Researchers have developed a new way to analyze DNA found in ancient parchments, allowing them to learn more about the domesticated plants and animals they were made from.

That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, which details how modern genetic sequencing techniques can reveal information about past plants and animals that is vital for genetic comparison to their modern day counterparts.

"Parchments are an amazing resource for genetic studies that consider agricultural development over the centuries," researcher Daniel Bradley at Trinity College Dublin said in a recent 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."

As a proof-of-concept, Bradley and his colleagues extracted DNA from two tiny (2x2cm) samples of parchment provided by the University of York's Borthwick Institute for Archives. Meanwhile, researchers in the Centre for Excellence in Mass Spectrometry at York extracted collagen (protein) from the same parchment samples.

The samples were paper parchment reinforced and repaired with thin wool threads. This allowed the papers to provide important genetic information on domesticated sheep during the 17th and 18th centuries, when demand for the animals practically reflected the demand for oil today.

"Wool was essentially the oil of times gone by," Bradley explained, "so knowing how human change affected the genetics of sheep through the ages can tell us a huge amount about how agricultural practices evolved."

Traditionally, experts have to rely on museum samples, well-preserved taxidermy, and even mummified evidence to look at the genetic history of species. However, they can now turn to paper, a readily available resource, for the same goal.

"We want to understand the history of agriculture ... over the last 1,000 years," added Matthew Collins, head of the BioArCh research center. "With this breath-taking resource, we can."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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