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Biology of the Book

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Science  28 Jul 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6349, pp. 346-349
DOI: 10.1126/science.357.6349.346

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Summary

Every book has a biological story to tell. Now, scientists have recently figured out how to sample books for ancient DNA and proteins without damaging them. Such studies are revealing the organisms that interacted with ancient books, from the animals whose skins are preserved as parchment to the bookworms and people who once lingered over the pages. Researchers can even isolate the microbes spewed on manuscripts when people kissed, coughed, or sneezed on them. In May, scientists shared new ways of analyzing ancient books at an unusual symposium at the Bodleian, which brought together biologists, librarians, medievalists, and even a modern scribe. They explored how biological clues can reveal hidden aspects of medieval life, from husbandry and economics to disease. As this new field of research cracks open, researchers hope to expose the medieval world of monks, scribes, readers, poets, and country gentlemen who touched books over the centuries.

  • * Photography by John Cairns