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Votive Ibis Mummies to Help DNA Studies

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 20, 2007 12:39 am    Post subject: Votive Ibis Mummies to Help DNA Studies Reply with quote


Investigating evolution and mutation through ancient DNA research
This year, imparting wisdom to eager rows of biology students is not on the timetable for Distinguished Professor David Lambert. Instead, this eminent researcher will be immersed in a very quiet, but compelling interaction with mummified Sacred Ibis from deep in the catacombs of Egypt.

This month Professor Lambert embarks on a new phase of the ancient DNA research for which he has been awarded a James Cook Research Fellowship by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

It’s the research that has earned his group at the Allan Wilson Centre, world wide accolades for its contribution to evolution studies and molecular ecology.

Having a source of well preserved remains thousands of years old and from other times in distant history has been a key contributor to advancing this research.

Professor Lambert and his group developed a series of novel approaches to measuring rates of molecular evolution and investigating the processes that underlie mutation. Their source of ancient DNA, for comparison with recent samples, was the remains of 6000-year old-Adélie penguins in Antarctica.

Now, with access to Sacred Ibis from the catacombs of ancient Egypt, Professor Lambert takes time out from teaching under the terms of his fellowship, to focus on making further discoveries through ancient DNA extracted from the Ibis.

The project, for which he’s attracted this top scientific research fellowship, poses the question, “Does a simple sequence DNA evolve simply?”

Research with ancient DNA is now at a turning point, says Professor Lambert, with new genomic technologies opening the way to test new ideas. He is taking the next steps in his research programme with collaborators at University College London, the American University in Cairo and the University of Cape Town.

“With this fellowship, I can capitalise on technological and conceptual developments and apply them to my research programme. I will be able to help transfer these technologies to other New Zealand researchers.”

“I feel that the opportunity to concentrate on all aspects of this programme from bioinformatics, experimental work to sample collection and analysis, will help to develop a uniquely New Zealand approach to a field of international interest.”

The research involves studying changes in DNA samples from widely separated points in time. The DNA from mummified Sacred Ibis, in some cases as much as 6000 years old, will be compared with samples collected right up to the present day from the widespread population of Sacred Ibis still roaming in Africa.

Mummified Ibis exist in far greater numbers than the many other animals resting in the Egyptian catacombs, because the ancient Egyptians revered the Sacred Ibis as a manifestation of the god Thoth.

Research shows the type of mummification varied depending on when and where the birds were prepared . “Generally, once killed, they would have been desiccated with salts and then covered with oils and resins before being wrapped.

“Some Ibis mummies were placed in large pottery vessels that were sealed and placed in wooden coffins. Some were covered with a layer of a papier mache type material that was plastered and painted,” says Professor Lambert.

“The mummification processes, together with moderate and constant temperature in the catacombs, are likely to have ensured good preservation of DNA, as well as the bodies themselves.”

Samples of modern DNA will come from an avian unit at the University of Cape Town that regularly bleed Sacred Ibis throughout Africa to collect samples.

The ancient DNA will came from mummies at sites in Egypt and from museum material. Professor Lambert says it’s possible to collect samples from damaged mummies without further damage to the object.

And one of his collaborators, Professor Mark Spigelman (University College, London) has developed methods to sample fully wrapped mummies with an endoscope that will leave little, if any evidence of this intrusion in the name of science.
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