How goat skin DNA solved Dead Sea scrolls mystery

Scientists are examining the scrolls to reconstruct the DNA of the goats whose skin was used to make the parchments.

dead sea scrolls 88 (photo credit: )
dead sea scrolls 88
(photo credit: )
Scientists at the Hebrew University's Koret School for Veterinary Science near Rishon Lezion are helping to piece together some of the 10,000 fragments of Dead Sea Scrolls found decades ago in Qumran by examining the DNA profiles of the goats whose skin was used to make the parchment and reducing the number of possible matches. Dr. Galia Kahila Bar-Gal said during a journalists' tour at the nearby Hebrew University Veterinary Teaching Hospital, where students learn and treat animals, that she and colleagues were looking at genetic forms from each fragment to know which came from specific animals. Once they know that two pieces came from the skin of the same animal, it is easier to piece them together, she said. Bar-Gal, who studies the genomes of ancient creatures that lived in Israel using molecular biology, morphology and DNA from bones, said mammoths roamed the land millions of years ago, elephants many thousands of years ago and that even hippopotami lived here. In more recent times there were lions, as well as Syrian bears that became extinct in 1917. Civilization, which brought in hunting, killed off many species, and during the last century, others have been wiped out by being hit by cars, she said. The Hebrew University scientists, who are trying to bring back golden squirrels, tested for their genetic makeup in museums with preserved specimens going back 70 years to find out what contemporary species are most similar and can be used to breed them locally. They have also studied the bones of animals found with human skeletons to determine whether humans were infected with zoonotic diseases originating in the animals. Hospital director Prof. Hylton Bark and Koret School head Prof. Gadi Glaser said the veterinary school was permitted by the Council for Higher Education to accept only about 40 new students a year, as the cost of training veterinarians is the most expensive of any university school - twice that of teaching physicians at the medical school in Jerusalem. However, they said, if the school were permitted to take in 20 more, they would not have to expand faculty or facilities but would make it possible for some of the 80 Israelis who go to Eastern Europe to study veterinary medicine to do it here. They noted that the level in Eastern European schools is significantly lower than in Israel, and that graduates come back to Israel to practice. They know of no unemployed vets, as the demand for their services as private veterinarians, employees in the public sector supervising meat and poultry production and in epidemiology is rising. The school, 80 percent of whose students are women, was established in 1985, and the nearby hospital was founded four years later. The non-profit hospital runs on a balanced budget, with pet and domestic animal owners paying for treatment, while donors pay for new buildings and other facilities. Although there are a few small animal "hospitals" in other parts of the country, the Hebrew University veterinary teaching hospital is the only one to operate round the clock every day of the year, to educate and to offer specialists in every conceivable field, including cardiology, ophthalmology, internal medicine and even oncology. Weekends are very busy, as private vets close their clinics and worried pet owners rush their sick dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters and other creatures to the hospital for treatment. The school also offers continuing education for veteran and new immigrant vets and enables students and vets to conduct research that benefits man as well as animal. Glaser noted that demand for its horse treatment and fertility units was expected to increase greatly when horse racing in the Jezreel Valley is allowed to begin next year. Horses are fertilized with frozen semen from abroad and some from a thoroughbred named Mukhtar who was injured and began a "new career" of supplying sperm to females. Some horses also serve as surrogate mothers implanted with embryos from others.