DNA recovered from old parchment

The Borthwick Institute for Archives

DNA recovered from old parchment

It’s not easy to find ancient DNA. Weathering and bacterial contamination of fossils, for example, can make it tough to recover enough pure, intact genetic material. Now, researchers have tapped a new source of ancient DNA: parchment. Genetic material obtained from two pieces of parchment, one from the 1600s and one from the 1700s, show that sheep provided the paper’s starting material and that over that century, a big shift occurred in the breed of sheep used in that part of the United Kingdom—from a scrappier, highlands, black-faced variety to a meatier, lowland breed. For centuries, civilizations have relied on the stretched, dried, and scraped hides of goats, sheep, pigs, and cows as “paper” to record their goings-on. Previous attempts to get DNA from parchment did not work well, but by using modern sequencing techniques, researchers can now get abundant livestock DNA from parchment, such as the 16th century deed from Lancashire, U.K., shown above, the team reports online today in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Not only is parchment plentiful, but as a legal document, it also has been carefully stored and often dated, making it a more readily available source of ancient DNA than bones. True, genetic material from parchment isn’t going to shed much light on human evolution, but the scientists say it could reveal the history of agriculture over the past 700 years as well as eventually inform historians about where and when a particular parchment document was made, the researchers note.