DNA testing methods

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DNA testing and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Crime investigators on television aren’t the only folks using DNA samples to solve mysteries. Researchers piecing together sections of the Dead Sea Scrolls rely more and more on DNA samples to figure out what scroll fragments belong together.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were written on animal hide. And every animal has its own unique DNA – the genetic code of every living organism. If two scroll fragments have the same DNA, then they must have come from the same skin.

You can think of the process as several different jigsaw puzzles with the pieces all mixed together. As one scientist describes it, testing the DNA of a fragment tells researchers which “box” that puzzle pieces come from. Scroll fragments with the same DNA come from the same parchment, and would most likely be part of the same document. In some cases, DNA testing has found mistakes in past reconstructions of scrolls—two pieces assumed to be from the same scroll were actually from different hides.

DNA testing is also used to help figure out where individual scrolls were written. Goats from a single area would likely have similar DNA based on the genes they inherited from their parents. By cross-checking scroll DNA with goat DNA collected in other locations – say, from bones found in a burial pit – researchers can pin-point the origins of specific scroll samples.

Michal Maňas
An animal skin being stretched to make a parchment writing surface. The DNA embedded in parchments offers researchers a clue to the origins of individual scrolls.