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Ancient DNA Analysis

Photos: Sheila Tierney working in the ancient DNA laboratory at the Institute of Technology, Sligo

The aim of the bio-molecular component of the Ballyhanna Research Project was to extract and analyse ancient DNA (aDNA) from the Ballyhanna human skeletal remains. This research was undertaken by Ms Sheila Tierney under the supervision of Dr Jeremy Bird at the Institute of Technology, Sligo. Initially the project aimed to extract and analyse aDNA from adult individuals in order to identify their sex. It was hoped that once this methodology had been validated it could then be used to sex non-adult individuals from the Ballyhanna skeletal collection. At present it is possible to confidently sex adult individuals using osteological methodologies, however, non-adult skeletons cannot be allocated an estimated sex with any degree of certainty using current osteological methodologies. Through the use of aDNA analysis it is therefore hoped that immature skeletons from Ballyhanna can be accurately sexed.

The promising initial results obtained allowed the scope of the project to develop which resulted in the formation of a collaborative relationship with a research group in the University of Wisconsin, Madison. This research group is headed by Professor Philip Farrell, a Professor of Pediatrics and Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. Professor Farrell is an expert on cystic fibrosis newborn screening and is leading an international interdisciplinary team investigating “The Ancient Origin of Cystic Fibrosis”. Ireland currently has the highest incidence of cystic fibrosis in the world, therefore it is hoped that this collaboration will uncover any differences between the rate of cystic fibrosis in Ireland between modern and medieval populations.

As the Ballyhanna Research Project evolved, a number of skeletons were identified by the osteoarchaeologists with pathological lesions which were likely to have been caused by tuberculosis. Further work was therefore undertaken to investigate whether it was possible to identify either mycobacterium tuberculosis or mycobacterium bovis in the adults displaying lesions indicative of tuberculosis using ancient DNA analysis. Collaborative links have thus been established with Dr Mike Taylor, Centre for Infectious Diseases and International Health, University College London, who is an expert in the analysis of ancient tuberculosis from human skeletal remains.