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DNA clues may help solve Dead Sea Scroll puzzle by matching fragments

The Israeli Antiquities Authority is enlisting new technology in the study of one of history's most intriguing ancient puzzles: the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A research team, which includes a BYU microbiologist and scientists from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, will use DNA analysis to determine whether the scroll parchments can be reassembled by matching their genetic fingerprints. They also hope to learn more about the origins of the ancient documents.DNA is the molecular basis of heredity, storing genetic codes in both plants and animals.

Speaking of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Scott Woodward, a BYU associate professor of microbiology who specializes in ancient DNA studies, said, "There are probably 10,000 different fragments and they may represent 800 scrolls, but nobody knows how many scrolls are represented in this collection. Most of the scrolls are written on parchment or animal skin, so we can isolate DNA from those animal skins. We may be able to assist those people working on the translations and interpretations by linking the fragments and parchments together based on their DNA fingerprints. We should be able to get an idea of how many scrolls there are, which pieces go together, and where the scrolls were produced," he said.

Woodward, who also studies DNA from the royal mummies of ancient Egypt and from dinosaur bones, is in Israel on joint appointments as a visiting research professor at Hebrew University and as a scholar-in-residence at BYU's Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.

The scrolls research team includes Woodward and Hebrew University colleagues Patricia Smith, Ariella Oppenheim, Charles Greenblatt, Marina Faerman and Gila Kahila. Emanuel Tov, director of the Israeli Antiquities Authority Dead Sea Scrolls research-team, and Magen Broshi, curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, assist in selection and acquisition of fragments for analysis.

The researchers will isolate three or four genes from each scroll fragment, genes that provide specific information about the animal skins, including which species and herd each animal came from. Since each fragment bears the DNA fingerprint of its biological source, researchers can determine which fragments are from the same skin or scroll. DNA tests can also show which scroll pieces are from related animals to identify scrolls that may be from different herds or geographic areas.

"We should be able to group scrolls or pieces of parchment together as coming from the same location in ancient Israel. That will give us an idea of how widespread this religious thought presented in the scroll material was at the time. Was it a localized event coming from the same group of people, the same group using parchment from the same herd or a closely related group of animals?" Woodward said.

He became involved in the scrolls project after Joe Zias, a curator at Israel's Rockefeller Museum, attended the BYU professor's lecture in Jerusalem on DNA studies of Egyptian mummies. Zias asked whether DNA amplification would be possible on the scroll fragments and invited Woodward to study the idea.

"I said I really thought it would be possible since they're animal skins," said Woodward. "I returned to BYU and gathered up all the old leather that I could find in my house - deerskin, goatskin, sheepskin - to see if we could extract DNA from tanned or prepared skins. We were able to get DNA from the skins surprisingly easily."

The IAA then provided Woodward with two tiny scroll fragments. Tests on ancient parchment would show whether DNA analysis would be possible on the scroll pages.

"It was a fairly intense week, but we were able to get all the way from the isolation of the DNA to the sequencing of one fragment in a week," he said.

After obtaining a DNA sequence from the second fragment, Woodward concluded that DNA from ancient animal skins could be amplified, and that the animal DNA was not subject to many of the contamination problems encountered with ancient human DNA. Contamination of ancient samples by modern sources is a major problem in ancient DNA laboratories.

The DNA studies could provide an important new tool for researchers who have tried to reconstruct the scrolls by matching handwriting and by piecing the fragments together based on their shape.

Decay of the pieces makes it difficult to fit them together. "It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with the interlocking pieces cut off," Woodward said.

Handwriting analysis, the most useful technique, only shows which material was written by the same scribe.

"But what if you have more than one scribe working on a particular scroll? Then fragments that belong to the same scroll would be assigned to different scrolls on the basis of handwriting alone," said Woodward.

The research team hopes to study 50 fragments in a one-year period. Information from DNA studies will then be compared with what has been learned about the fragments from other methods of examination.

Woodward said it would take years to amplify DNA from all of the scroll fragments, but he believes DNA studies, used in whatever capacity, can offer information that can be obtained from no other source.

"I think it's going to be extremely valuable. I think scholars will be very interested in the results we get and in the things we'll be able to tell them," he said.

Woodward's one-year appointment in Jerusalem runs through August 1995. In his BYU and Jerusalem laboratories, work continues on the Egyptian royal mummy studies and other ancient DNA projects.