When Marty Johnson started his bioscience career, he never dreamed he would travel to Cairo and train Egyptian scientists to perform DNA tests on mummies of the country’s most powerful and mysterious pharaohs.
Johnson, a senior application scientist who has worked with Applied Biosystems in Foster City for 21 years, found himself holding a vial of powdered bone from the body of pharaoh Hatshepsut, arguably Egypt’s most powerful female leader of all time.
“I looked at the microscopic amount of fluid and thought, ‘This is the most important piece of DNA I’ve ever worked with,’” Johnson said.
Scientists weren’t even certain they had positively identified Hatshepsut until Wednesday, when a missing tooth confirmed they had the legendary queen’s mummy.
“What’s significant about Hatshepsut is that she was not only a queen, but became a pharaoh when that office was a very macho, male institution,” said Joe Manning, associate professor of Egyptology and ancient history in Stanford University’s department of classics.
To gain her position, “she must have been an extraordinary politician,” Manning said. She ruled for 15 years, from 1473 to 1458 B.C. and died between age 45 and 60, suffering from cancer and diabetes, said Nicola Oldroyd, a senior forensic specialist at Applied Biosystems.
Three researchers from Applied Biosystems traveled to Cairo this year to set up the DNA testing lab where Hatshepsut and others can be studied.
Mummies lose much of their DNA-yielding tissue over time; the primary remaining source of samples is the long bones of the body, according to Oldroyd. Testing will primarily confirm the lineages of mummies thought to belong to Egypt’s royal families. It canbe challenging to extract the DNA samples, and the genetic material is destroyed during the testing process, which is one reason scientists waited until DNA technology became as refined as it is today, according to Johnson.
“Historians claim there were significant economic improvements, but the only thing that’s going to tell us is looking scientifically at the mummies,” Manning said. “No documentation’s going to tell us that.”
View a slideshow of the “Queen Mummy.”