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Sheep Parchment Shows Breed History Over Last Millenium

16 April 2015

UK - Archives of ancient parchment can improve our knowledge of sheep genetics, according to research presented at the British Society of Animal Science (BSAS) conference this week.

Parchment is made from animal skin in a process similar to tanning, and was the main medium for legal documents until the start of the 20th century.

That means these important documents have been carefully preserved, allowing scientists to study DNA from skins made over the last thousand years.

Many of the documents they studied were about to be thrown away, as previously badly-stored manuscripts become illegible, explained Professor Matthew Collins, University of York. 

He said scientists were able to extract animal DNA from small pieces of the parchments, despite the fact that the original parchment makers used lime in processing the animal skins, a process which is damaging to DNA molecules.

Parchments from the UK were mainly made from sheep skins, so the retrieved DNA sequence fragments gave an important insight into historical sheep breeding.

The documents also tended to record the date, allowing the genetic record to be linked to exact periods of time.

The initial findings of the study show that there was a rapid transition from older to 'improved' breeds in Yorkshire towards the end of the 18th century.

The scientists were also pleased to find that sheep genes can be identified fairly accurately from the DNA fragments, unlike data from cattle or goats.

Alice Mitchell

Alice Mitchell
News Team - Editor



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