Testing and Treatment of Microbial Impacts on Generic Archeological Collections

2017 PTT Grant, Southern Methodist University, $40,000


The impact of microscopic microbes (bacteria, fungi) that live on the surface of bones in archaeological collections is commonly mitigated through environmental conditions in the curatorial environment (temperature, moisture) and monitored by physical examination of faunal bone and human remains. In this study we examine how these same microbe communities effect an increasingly important part of managing collections: genetic preservation. In the first part of the study, we use genetic techniques to describe the living microbial communities on the surface of faunal bone to determine if the composition of these communities is correlated with the preservation of ‘ancient DNA’ within the bone itself. The results will help sort out the microbes that have no demonstrable impact from those who may be especially harmful, and those whose presence might in fact help slow the degradation of DNA within the bone. In the second part, we subject samples to two non-destructive treatments aimed at killing microbes on the surface of bone (bleach wash, ultraviolet light) and then let allow new microbial communities to recolonize the surface of the bone. The results will give collections managers the data they need to make evidence-based policies on genetic preservation. Specifically, we will test how effective these treatments are for controlling the microbial communities, and if they are likely to have unintended effects in promoting especially harmful microbes. While these results will be generalizable to the treatment of human remains, we will only use faunal bone for experiments. No human remains will be studied.

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