Some researchers claim to have analysed DNA from Egyptian mummies. Others say that's impossible. Could new sequencing methods bridge the divide?
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.
Enter the world of ancient Egyptian DNA and you are asked to choose between two alternate realities: one in which DNA analysis is routine, and the other in which it is impossible. "The ancient-DNA field is split absolutely in half," says Tom Gilbert, who heads two research groups at the Center for GeoGenetics in Copenhagen, one of the world's foremost ancient-DNA labs.
Unable to resolve their differences, the two sides publish in different journals, attend different conferences and refer to each other as 'believers' and 'sceptics' — when, that is, they're not simply ignoring each other. The Tutankhamun study reignited long-standing tensions between the two camps, with sceptics claiming that in this study, as in most others, the results can be explained by contamination. Next-generation sequencing techniques, however, may soon be able to resolve the split once and for all by making it easier to sequence ancient, degraded DNA. But for now, Zink says, "It's like a religious thing. If our papers are reviewed by one of the other groups, you get revisions like 'I don't believe it's possible'. It's hard to argue with that."
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Marchant, Jo. 2011. "Ancient DNA: Curse of the Pharaoh's DNA". Nature. Posted: April 27, 2011. Available online: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110427/full/472404a.html