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Swabbing Books May Lead to Shakespeare’s DNA

An underground storage facility and protected by a 9-inch steel vault door, the Folger Shakespeare Library houses over 260,000 books, manuscripts, costumes, and documents that are historically significant. This library is a sanctuary for the things of the past that shaped the present day that we live in today. But, could this library have stored more than just the books and documents, but also the people behind these historically significant objects? Specifically, could this library have stored a fragment of one of the most influential figures in the history of literature — the remnant of William Shakespeare himself?

That possibility is the longest of long shots, but it’s one potential outcome of an ongoing effort at the Folger dubbed Project Dustbunny—so named because it involves analyzing human DNA and proteins harvested from dirt inside the Folger’s old books. Some microscopic bits could, in theory, have once dropped off of Western literature’s greatest genius, preserved for hundreds of years without anyone knowing they were there. So far, the results of Project Dustbunny have been much less dramatic. The experiment started in 2015, when the library asked NIH geneticist Julie Segre to test some gunk scraped out of a 400-year-old Bible in its collection. The process took almost a year, but eventually Segre was able to sequence mitochondrial and microbial DNA found in the sample. The person it belonged to was from Northern Europe, she determined, and had skin bacteria consistent with acne.
These were obviously not foundation-shaking discoveries. But while nobody much cares that a spotty European once dropped a skin flake into an old religious book, the fact that any concrete information could be extracted from centuries-old gutter dust was a revelation. “Just the answerability of some questions gets people excited,” says Folger director Michael Witmore. “It gets me excited. We don’t know everything yet. I want to always be learning that there’s more to know.”

Find out more at the Washingtonian.

(Image Credit: Evy Mages)

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