Did you know that there are ancient specimens of various crop plants stored at museums? Well, there are! Curious souls will find some preserved wheat samples held at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, part of the University College London’s Museums and Collections. As soon as Richard Mott of the Genetics Institute at UCL learned about the existence of these specimens, he wanted to study them.
What Could Ancient Wheat Tell Us?
The short answer is — a lot. Mott theorized that the samples likely contained bits of ancient wheat DNA that could give valuable insights as to how this crop species was historically cultivated. He partnered with a team of UCL archaeobotanists and collaborators to go through the museum’s collection of ancient emmer wheat and select a couple of well-preserved husks. This species originates from the Near East and was one of the first domesticated crops in the region.
How They Approached the Research
The husks were then carefully photographed and wrapped in foil before transporting them to be freshly bleached and used to process forensic and ancient samples. Population geneticist Laura Botigué was in charge of bleaching the samples and separating ancient DNA from them. All decontamination protocols were followed, and after a couple of weeks, the researchers managed to extract readable ancient DNA. They found that about two-thirds of the readings they got actually align with genomes of modern domesticated and wild emmer wheat varieties.
Despite being stored with no particular preservation efforts at the museum for over 90 years, researchers think it was due to the dry conditions of Egypt that the DNA was so well preserved throughout time. We’re talking about 3,000-year-old samples here. The carbon dating showed the specimens were from between 1130 and 1000 BC.
Since the samples proved to be more genetically similar to modern domesticated varieties than modern wild wheat species, scientists concluded that these samples came from a plant lineage that had already been domesticated three millennia ago. Tracing those gene flows is incredibly fascinating and an immensely important part of understanding human history and culture.