May 31 (UPI) -- A team of German researchers has successfully sequenced DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies. It's the first time mummies have yielded reliable genomic data.
The analysis -- detailed in the journal Nature Communications -- suggests ancient Egyptians were most closely related to populations from the Near East, while modern Egyptians share strong genetic similarities with the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa.
Scientists have previously extracted DNA from mummified remains, but haven't had success verifying its authenticity or using it for genomic analysis.
"The hot Egyptian climate, the high humidity levels in many tombs and some of the chemicals used in mummification techniques, contribute to DNA degradation and are thought to make the long-term survival of DNA in Egyptian mummies unlikely," Johannes Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, said in a news release.
Researchers looked at genetic samples collected from 151 mummies dating from between 1,400 BCE and 400 CE. The 1,300-year timespan allowed scientists to compare the genetic relationships among ancient populations to those measured in modern populations.
Scientists used the data to map the mitochondrial genomes of 90 mummies, and developed genome-wide datasets for three mummies. A genome, as opposed to a DNA sample, reveals an individual's genetic variations as related to the wider population from which he or she originates.
The genomic survey allowed the researchers to test theories about the movement and mixing of ancient people in a region at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe.
"In particular, we were interested in looking at changes and continuities in the genetic makeup of the ancient inhabitants of Abusir el-Meleq," said Alexander Peltzer, a researcher at the University of Tuebingen.
Abusir el-Meleq is an archaeological site situated along the Nile River in Middle Egypt. Peltzer and his colleagues were particularly interested in identifying the genetic signatures of foreign invasions.
"We wanted to test if the conquest of Alexander the Great and other foreign powers has left a genetic imprint on the ancient Egyptian population," said Tuebingen researcher Verena Schuenemann.
Their findings showed ancient Egyptians had strong genetic links to the people of the Levant, as well as Neolithic populations from Anatolia and Europe.
"The genetics of the Abusir el-Meleq community did not undergo any major shifts during the 1,300 year timespan we studied, suggesting that the population remained genetically relatively unaffected by foreign conquest and rule," said Wolfgang Haak, a scientist with the Max Planck Institute.