The Genetics of 6,000 Year Old Barley

barley Uri Davidovich
Photo Credit – Uri Davidovich

Using archaeobotany to track the domestication of crop plants.

“For us, ancient DNA works like a time capsule that allows us to travel back in history and look into the domestication of crop plants at distinct time points in the past.”  

                     — Director of the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

The genome of what is believed to be the world’s oldest plant (to date) has been reconstructed. 6,000 year-old barley grain seeds were found along with tens of thousands of other grains, during an excavation by Uri Davidovich. Their location; Israel’s Judean Desert, near Masada fortress, in Yoram cave. It’s hard to access and was probably used for a very short time.

Ancient corn was the first extremely old plant to be genetically sequenced. The Chalcolithic grain is now the oldest plant to be reconstructed.

Researchers used radiocarbon dating on half of the grains, and used the other half for DNA mapping purposes.

“This similarity is an amazing finding considering to what extent the climate, but also the local flora and fauna, as well as the agricultural methods, have changed over this long period of time.”

                    -Martin Mascher, from the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research

Barley and wheat have been grown for at least 10,000 years in large parts of the Middle East. There are many similarities in genetic makeup between ancient grain and the modern day domesticated. Wild forms of these grains are still found in the area today. By comparing the ancient seeds with wild ones and other farmer grown varieties in the Near East, researchers suggest that barley domestication originated in the Upper Jordan Valley. This is supported by archaeological sites where remains of barley cultivation were found.

“Our analyses show that the seeds cultivated 6,000 years ago greatly differ genetically from the wild forms we find today in the region. However, they show considerable genetic overlap with present-day domesticated lines from the region.”

                   -Nils Stein

Source: Press Release From BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY.

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