BOSTON — INFORMATION stored in the genes of animal skins may help researchers splice together the 20th century's greatest archaeological find and a daunting jigsaw puzzle: the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Some of the scrolls, made of animal-skin parchments, are well-preserved, offering scholars unique insights into Jewish culture and religion in a 300-year period that embraces the birth of Christianity. Other scrolls have crumbled into thousands of pieces, some as small as a quarter. Figuring out which piece goes with a certain scroll has been largely a matter of guesswork.
``It's like a giant puzzle with a lot of pieces missing and with no overall picture to guide you,'' says Steve Feldman, with the Biblical Archaeological Society in Washington.
Lacking that overall picture, a team of researchers has a labor-saving technique to help sift through the shards of parchments: genetic fingerprinting. The goal is to use the technique ``to match small fragments of scroll material that originated from the same parchment,'' says Scott Woodward, an associate professor of microbiology at Utah's Brigham Young University, who heads the five-year, $500,000 effort.
Nearly every organism has its unique genetic blueprint held in the molecules of DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, found in its cells. Organisms can be distinguished from each other by the patterns, or sequences, of four types of molecules known as bases. When scientists put DNA samples through an imaging process, these sequences appear as a series of short parallel stripes, much like the bar code on a can of soup. To match parchment sections, researchers would extract DNA and analyze the sequence of pairs of bases that form steps on a stepladder along DNA's double-helix structure.
In addition to matching scroll shards, which were found in caves after 1947 in what is now the Israeli-controlled West Bank, DNA fingerprinting may help trace the parchments to a geographic point of origin, Dr. Woodward says. Researchers will compare the DNA fingerprints from the manuscripts with those taken from animal-bone fragments at archaeological digs in the region that date to the time the manuscripts were written. DNA fingerprinting also may provide a test of how accurately larger Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts have been reconstructed.
High-tech solutions to other Dead Sea Scroll problems have been applied in recent years. During the past year, for example, Gregory Bearman, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., has been using infrared imaging techniques to uncover otherwise undetectable writing on scroll fragments. On some fragments, the black ink of the text was indistinguishable from the blackened surface of the aged parchment. Together with Bruce Zuckerman, a specialist in Semitic languages at the University of Southern California's School of Religion, Dr. Bearman used the infrared technology to detect and translate the text.
``The results have been absolutely beautiful,'' he says. ``We have uncovered a lot of new text that no one had ever seen before.''
The first task for Woodward's team was to demonstrate that they could isolate uncontaminated original DNA from the parchments, particularly after all the handling they have received. ``We have shown that we can get clean animal DNA from the parchment material,'' Woodward says.
Now the focus will shift to 20 to 30 fragments with known relationships as a test of how well the actual matching can work. At the end of project, he says, he hopes to answer the key question: ``Is this delivering the goods? Will it help scholars? I'm pretty confident that the answer will be in the affirmative.''