Historical ‘gum’ reveals 5,000-year-old DNA

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Researchers have extracted a whole historic human genome from birch pitch, a 5,700-year-old kind of historic “chewing gum,” discovered throughout excavations on Lolland, Denmark.

The researchers imagine it marks the primary time that anybody has extracted a complete historic human genome from something aside from human bones.


“It’s wonderful to have gotten a whole historic human genome from something aside from bone,” says Hannes Schroeder, affiliate professor from the Globe Institute on the College of Copenhagen.

“What’s extra, we additionally retrieved DNA from oral microbes and several other essential human pathogens, which makes this a really useful supply of historic DNA, particularly for time durations the place we’ve no human stays.”

The tiny birch pitch The birch pitch researchers discovered at Syltholm on Lolland. (Credit score: Theis Jensen)

What’s birch pitch?

Birch pitch is a black-brown substance that’s produced by heating birch bark. It was generally utilized in prehistory for hafting stone instruments as an all-purpose glue. The earliest recognized use of birch pitch dates again to the Palaeolithic.

Scientists typically discover items of birch pitch with tooth imprints suggesting that folks chewed them. Because the pitch solidifies on cooling, scientists have instructed that folks chewed to make it malleable once more earlier than utilizing it for hafting.

Scientists have additionally instructed different makes use of for birch pitch. For instance, one principle means that birch pitch might have been used to alleviate toothache or different illnesses as it’s mildly antiseptic. Different theories counsel, folks might have used it as a form of prehistoric tooth brush, to suppress starvation, or simply for enjoyable as a chewing gum.

Sealed within the mud

Primarily based on the traditional human genome, the researchers might inform feminine chewed the birch pitch. She was genetically extra carefully associated to hunter-gatherers from the mainland Europe than to those that lived in central Scandinavia on the time. Additionally they found she most likely had darkish pores and skin, darkish hair, and blue eyes.

The dark-haired woman wraps herself in a blanket or shawl while standing in front of reeds in the backgroundInventive reconstruction of the girl who chewed the birch pitch. She has been named Lola. (Credit score: Tom Björklund)

Archeologists discovered the birch pitch throughout excavations at Syltholm, east of Rødbyhavn in southern Denmark. The Museum Lolland-Falster is conducting the excavations in reference to the development of the Fehmarn tunnel.

“Syltholm is totally distinctive. Nearly every thing is sealed in mud, which signifies that the preservation of natural stays is completely phenomenal,” says Theis Jensen, a postdoc on the Globe Institute, who labored on the examine for his PhD and likewise participated within the excavations at Syltholm.

“It’s the largest Stone Age web site in Denmark and the archaeological finds counsel that the individuals who occupied the location had been closely exploiting wild assets properly into the Neolithic, which is the interval when farming and domesticated animals had been first launched into southern Scandinavia,” he says.

The DNA outcomes replicate this, because the researchers additionally recognized traces of plant and animal DNA within the pitch—particularly hazelnuts and duck—which can have been a part of the person’s weight loss program.

Secrets and techniques of historic gum

Additional, the researchers extracted DNA from a number of oral microbiota from the pitch, together with many commensal species and opportunistic pathogens.

“The preservation is extremely good, and we managed to extract many various bacterial species which can be attribute of an oral microbiome,” Schroeder says. “Our ancestors lived in a unique surroundings and had a unique way of life and weight loss program, and it’s due to this fact fascinating to learn the way that is mirrored of their microbiome.

The researchers additionally discovered DNA they might assign to Epstein-Barr virus, recognized to trigger infectious mononucleosis or glandular fever. Historical “chewing gums” have nice potential for researchers investigating the composition of our ancestral microbiome and the evolution of essential human pathogens, in line with Schroeder.

“It may assist us perceive how pathogens have developed and unfold over time, and what makes them significantly virulent in a given surroundings. On the identical time, it could assist predict how a pathogen will behave sooner or later, and the way it is likely to be contained or eradicated.”

The analysis seems in Nature Communications. The Villum Basis and the EU’s analysis program Horizon 2020 by the Marie Curie Actions funded the work.

Supply: College of Copenhagen