Friday, April 29, 2011

Ancient DNA: Curse of the Pharaoh's DNA


Cameras roll as ancient-DNA experts Carsten Pusch and Albert Zink scrutinize a row of coloured peaks on their computer screen. There is a dramatic pause. "My god!" whispers Pusch, the words muffled by his surgical mask. Then the two hug and shake hands, accompanied by the laughter and applause of their Egyptian colleagues. They have every right to be pleased with themselves. After months of painstaking work, they have finally completed their analysis of 3,300-year-old DNA from the mummy of King Tutankhamun.

Featured in the Discovery Channel documentary King Tut Unwrapped last year and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)1, their analysis — of Tutankhamun and ten of his relatives — was the latest in a string of studies reporting the analysis of DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies. Apparently revealing the mummies' family relationships as well as their afflictions, such as tuberculosis and malaria, the work seems to be providing unprecedented insight into the lives and health of ancient Egyptians and is ushering in a new era of 'molecular Egyptology'. Except that half of the researchers in the field challenge every word of it.

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