Here's one for the bibliophiles among us - an excerpt from an a February 19, 2019 article in The Atlantic about a lab investigating the
DNA found in (very) old books. -Editor
It was in the archives of the Archbishop of York that Matthew Collins had an epiphany: He was surrounded by millions of animal skins.
Another person might say they were surrounded by books and manuscripts written on parchment, which is made from skins, usually of cows and sheep.
Collins, however, had been trying to make sense of animal-bone fragments from archaeological digs, and he began to think about the advantages of
studying animal skins, already cut into rectangles and arranged neatly on a shelf. Archaeologists consider themselves lucky to get a few dozen
samples, and here were millions of skins just sitting there. "Just an obscene number," Collins told me, his voice still giddy at the
possibilities in their DNA.
In recent years, archaeologists and historians have awakened to the potential of ancient DNA extracted from human bones and teeth. DNA evidence
has enriched-and complicated-stories of prehistoric human migrations. It has provided tantalizing clues to epidemics such as the black death.
It has identified the remains of King Richard III, found under a parking lot. But Collins isn't just interested in human remains. He's
interested in the things these humans made; the animals they bred, slaughtered, and ate; and the economies they created.
Collins splits his time between Cambridge and the University of Copenhagen, and it's hard to nail down exactly what kind of -ologist he is. He
has a knack for gathering experts as diverse as parchment specialists, veterinarians, geneticists, archivists, economic historians, and protein
scientists (his own background). "All I do is connect people together," he said. "I'm just the ignorant one in the
Pulling the project together though, was far from easy. -Editor
The National Science Foundation would tell him that they didn't work on livestock, and he should call the USDA. He'd talk to the USDA, and
they'd tell him that medieval books fell under the purview of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He'd talk to humanities people, and
they'd say, Genetics research? That already has all the money. "I really did get on this constant loop of everyone wanting me to call
someone else," Stinson says.
Even once the project got underway, there were hurdles. -Editor
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.
Congratulations to Collins for his perseverence. Linked below are a couple earlier E-Sylum articles about attempts to recreate smells of
the past from books. -Editor
To read the complete article, see:
The Lab Discovering DNA in Old Books
To read the earlier E-Sylum articles, see:
STOP AND SMELL THE BOOKS (https://www.coinbooks.org/v20/esylum_v20n10a32.html)
A WHIFF OF HISTORY FROM BOOKS
Wayne Homren, Editor
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