Wednesday, July 13, 2005

The Crazy Sheep Project

You know, I've devoted a big portion of my scholarship to trying to understand how traditions work. Does anyone care? Noooo. But mention some crazy project about extracting sheep DNA from parchment and suddenly I'm getting all kinds of amazing suggestions and encouragement.

Spouse: "You're going to be known as the Crazy Sheep DNA Guy."

She's probably right. But anything that this many people respond to (and which, honestly, I find really interesting), is worth pursuing a bit. So I'm conferring with my friends in Biology (one of whom does molecular phylogenetics for fish, so he knows about extracting DNA and figuring out the relationships implied by shared error, etc--which, by the way, textual scholars invented independently and hundreds of years before biologists began using the same techniques for phylogenetics). I'm also talking to my boss, Wheaton's Provost, and the Grants Office.

This, by the way, is one of the amazingly great things about Wheaton. I can mosey over to the Science Center and chat with friends and put together a proposal not only with no resistance, but with excitement and encouragement. When I mentioned to a friend who was working on a large-scale research project in England that the biologists at her institution might be able to help with some of the data analysis, she responded: "But they won't respond to an email and have no interest in meeting with us."

I understand how busy the biologists generally are (at Wheaton, they all seem, like me, to have three or four research programs going at once). But to assume that they won't return emails or phone calls and have no interest in collaboration.. weird.

Back to Crazy Sheep Project. I've done a little research and have found that ovine DNA has been extracted from parchment. There is a research group a Gottingen who have done some work (they are cited in this paper (in pdf) on DNA Recovery from 10th and 11th Century Cattle Bones. I'm waiting for things to come in ILL or through the electronic search process (I can't get my VPN to work with Mac Tiger, so I have to go on to campus and do the e-lit searches for the science databases).

The real limiting factor will be whether or not you can get sheep DNA from a "non-invasive" test. If I can rub a sterile probe on a few follicles or run a stick down the edge of a leaf and then use RAPD-PCR and get good data, then I think the project can work. But there is no way that any of the libraries are going to let me remove any amount of material from the leaves. And they'd be right not to. Those manuscripts are held in trust for future generations, and we can't nibble off bits of them.

I've pasted in below the brief description I've thrown together to show colleagues, Provost, grants office, etc. Obviously much more will have to be done, and I'll be pestering those of you who made such good suggestions for more help if the project progresses.

Manuscript Relationships from Ovine (and Bovine) DNA

Medieval manuscripts are made from tanned sheep hides (parchment) and cow hides (vellum). Ovine and bovine DNA has been recovered from similar materials. After the DNA was amplified using RAPD-PCR, individual animals were identified using STR profiling. Animal populations were also characterized using mtDNA and STR allele frequencies (Burger, Pfieffer, et. al. 1999).

Using ovine and bovine DNA sequencing, it should be possible to determine relationships between various manuscripts dating from the Anglo-Saxon period (c. 500-1066, with most manuscripts dating from between 700-1066). The animal DNA of each leaf of each manuscript (and leaves of single-sheet charters) would be sequenced and the identifying information entered into a database. This data could then be used to identify relationships between various manuscripts. Individual animals that were used in multiple manuscripts would imply either that these manuscripts were copied in the same scriptoria or that there was a central supply of pre-prepared parchment made from the same herd. Manuscripts that have not previously been known to be related could be identified, and previously unknown connections established. For example, although the existence of a “royal writing office” is no longer doubted, study of manuscript linkages could demonstrate if that writing office produced materials other than charters and writs, and if there was any connection between the production of literary manuscripts. It may even be possible, depending upon what the data demonstrates, to determine a provenance or date for the Beowulf manuscript or the Vercelli Book.

Untangling the relationships between individual sheep and composite manuscripts would be a multi-disciplinary effort that includes mathematicians, biologists, paleographers, historians and literary scholars. I would also like to propose developing a graphical representation of manuscript information (including the identity of the individual animal source for each leaf) that would be similar to that developed for the Human Genome Project by Ben Fry at the MIT Media Lab . Such a representational convention would be useful for researchers even before the DNA data is assembled as it would allow much easier visualization of manuscript contents.

15 comments:

Frank said...

This sounds like an utterly fascinating and worthy project. I really, really, really hope it can get off the ground. Even as a non-Anglo-Saxon scholar, I think it would be interesting to see.

Lisa Spangenberg said...

You put cows in! Thanks ever so. Now, about your VPN client--is it Cisco's VPN? They've just released a new one for OS X/Tiger, and for some folks, the 10.4.2 update this week has resolved issues. Just remember to Repair Permissions (applications/utilities/disk utility) before and after the update.

Tiruncula said...

This sounds extremely cool, but I also want to reassure you that I care even more about how traditions work.

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