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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 July, 2003, 09:57 GMT 10:57 UK
DNA could pinpoint books' origins
Illuminated manuscripts like the Gutenberg Bible were written on parchment
Illuminated texts are printed on parchment made from animal skin
Scientists at Cambridge University are working on a DNA technique to identify the date and origin of ancient manuscripts.

Biochemist Christopher Howe and his colleagues are working on a method that will reveal which species of animal a particular parchment is made from.

By extracting the DNA of a parchment using a technique called polymerase chain reaction, amplifying it and then studying the sequence, scientists hope to find the skin used to produce it.

Dr Howe said: "Once you know which species of animal the parchment comes from, you might be able to see if other sheets of parchment came from the same animal using genetic finger-printing.

A goat
Vellum parchment is made of goat skin
"Then, if you had a book whose origins you are not sure about, you could show it had similar DNA as the other parchment and you could say it came from a similar flock.

"The technique we are developing could be applied to any parchment."

It could be used to identify the age and origin of a range of ancient manuscripts housed at the Parker Library of Corpus Christi college, Cambridge, for example.

The Canterbury Gospels, believed to have arrived in Britain in 579 AD and used by Archbishops of Canterbury for swearing their enthronement oath, are housed at the library.

Dr Howe said: "If we had a manuscript that came from Italy and we could show the DNA was closely related to that, it would show that the Canterbury Gospels came from the same place and time."

Once developed, Dr Howe said he hopes the technology will help to identify the origins of "huge numbers of manuscripts that people are not certain about".

The research has been made possible by a 52,000 grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Board.

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