egyptA study has been carried out suggesting that Egyptian mummies may have been more closely related to individuals in present day Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, and other sites in the Near East than to populations residing in Egypt today.

The first of its kind study was carried out in Germany, led by an international team of investigators. They sequenced mitochondrial genomes from 90 Egyptian mummies at an archaeological site called Abusir el-Meleq.

The findings, reported in Nature Communications, said the remains which ranged in age from nearly 1,600 to more than 3,400 years, provided a look at populations that moved through the region and transitions between Pre-Ptolemaic, Ptolemaic, and Roman Periods. Generally, the results suggest that such samples can yield useful genetic information, despite conditions considered sub-optimal for DNA preservation.

Co-corresponding authors, Johannes Krause, Stephan Schiffels, and Wolfgang Haak, from the University of Tubingen and/or Max Planck from the Institute for the Science of Human History, and their colleagues, commented, “Our results revise previous scepticism towards the DNA preservation in ancient Egyptian mummies due to climate conditions or mummification procedures. The methodology presented here opens up promising avenues for future genetic research and can greatly contribute towards a more accurate and refined understanding of Egypt’s population history.”

The researchers amplified ancient DNA libraries for 151 individuals and enriched for human mitochondrial DNA with bead capture hybridisation before sequencing the ancient genetic material with the Illumina HiSeq 2500 instrument. They also used a custom SNP in solution capture tool called pileupCaller to profile 1.24 million variants in the nuclear genome in samples from 40 mummies that had yielded especially high levels of mtDNA, generating profiles between 132,000 and more than 508,300 SNPs apiece for three of the male mummies. This was derived from bone, soft tissue, or tooth samples at the Abusir el-Meleq site.

Despite battling against the influence of potentially DNA-degrading temperature, humidity, and mummification chemicals, the team was able to generate 11-fold to more than 4,200-fold coverage of the mitochondrial genomes. The sequences were then compared with 100 modern and ancient populations in the region to uncover ties between the mummified Egyptian samples and the ancient populations.  

However, also reported was that the mummies also shared mitochondrial genome similarities with current populations in the Levant and Near East. These findings were further supported when they folded in information from the mummies’ nuclear genomes and genomes from thousands of sequenced individuals from ancient and modern populations.

The authors concluded that they obtained similar levels of DNA from mummy bone or teeth samples, through soft tissue from the mummies tended to contain far less preserved DNA.