Way back in the summer of 2005 I wrote about wanting to extract DNA from medieval manuscripts in order possibly to discover relationships among MS that might otherwise be completely opaque. I was pretty surprised at the response. People seemed really interested, and I got a lot of useful suggestions.
But saying that you want to extract DNA from a medieval manuscript is one thing; doing it is quite another. I personally do not know how to do polymerase chain reaction work, the biologists weren't about to give me free run of the lab, and when I spoke casually to the Art Historians about snipping off some bits of their new Book of Hours... Well, you can imagine the reaction (I'm surprised I don't get patted down for hidden scissors when I go over to the art history department).
Now, however, in my best tradition of juggling six projects at once, the Crazy Sheep DNA Project is moving ahead. I was just awarded an Arnold Summer Fellowship (courtesy of one of our particularly far-sighted benefactors at Wheaton) to work on a pilot program to see what we can do.
Supposedly the Parker Library at Cambridge was going to do this (but there's been no word since the announcement), and a Greek group was able to extract some caprid (goat) DNA from ancient parchments. But everyone is running up against the same problems, I think: how do you test without destroying the manuscripts?
Well, we think we've come up with some ways, and, with my brilliant student Amanda Shorette, we'll be working on them this summer and continuing through the fall. Our goals are:
To demonstrate non-destructive testing.
Assuming this non-destructive testing works, to prototype a simple extraction method that others can replicate. This will probably require the design of inexpensive jigs that can be mass-produced.
To design a database into which all parchment/vellum DNA information from any group could be placed (to facilitate collaboration--there's no way that any one group could do all the testing, but if every group can pool data, interesting relationships can arise).
To design an interface for that database and a visual representation of the data (for related work, see this post.
To identify the most promising manuscripts for testing (i.e., which manuscripts would potentially give us the most valuable information).
Our plan is to make Amanda (who is a Biology major) as fully interdisciplinary as possible in manuscript studies and DNA sequencing (and this gives me an excuse to become a fully interdisciplinary as possible in the same fields). To this end, I'll be teaching her paleography, how to use the Ker catalogue and Gneuss handlist, etc., and we'll be doing an extensive literature search for ovine/bovine DNA sequencing.
And best of all, I get a really good excuse to hang out in the Science Center not just all summer, but all next year. Because when fall comes around, we'll be collaborating with Prof. Barbara Brennessel, with whom I co-wrote my ASE article on Anglo-Saxon medicine (summary: it didn't work very well).
I'm really grateful to Trish Arnold, who has done so much for Wheaton, for her visionary approach to unusual, long-shot interdisciplinary research.