When he was in junior high school, Scott Woodward wanted to be a dentist someday. But then he had wisdom teeth pulled, and it was such an ordeal he decided he didn't want to ever do that to anybody.
On Thursday the now-famous Brigham Young University molecular biologist was in San Jose, Calif., pulling teeth - molars of Egyptians who lived about 2,600 years ago."I found that the mummies don't complain," he said in a Deseret News interview soon after returning to Utah.
The BYU expedition to San Jose garnered extensive coverage in the California papers, including the San Francisco Chronicle. Accompanying Woodward to the Rosi-crucian Egyptian Museum there were fellow BYU molecular biologists Paul Evans and Wilfred Griggs.
Extracting teeth or getting other tissues from mummies - including six at the San Jose museum - is part of a study of ancient DNA that Woodward's team is conducting. In his lab at Provo, the ancient genetic material is replicated and examined for information about family relationships and ethnic origin.
In addition, the researchers are looking for other clues about the Egyptians' lives, such as indications of illness in the bones and type of weave of linen burial cloth, which can help tell when the person lived.
To extract the tooth of one mummy, the team used a probe with a tiny video camera, like those used by some dentists. Then Wood-ward pulled a tooth, using rubber gloves that protected the tooth from contamination with flakes of skin or other bits of Woodward's genetic material. If the sample were contaminated, the replications might copy nothing but Woodward's own DNA, which isn't what the team hopes to study.
The latest sampling follows excavation of ancient Egyptian cemeteries that may contain as many as hundreds of thousands of burials. "So far we've excavated probably 500 of them" over the past four or five years.
All of these graves date to about the same period as the mummies in the San Jose museum.
"We've also been invited by the Egyptian government to do the same type of genetic analysis on the royal mummies" kept in that country. "Those are primarily from the 18th dynasty." That dynasty included the pharaoh Tut-ank-hamun, the youth known as in our time as "King Tut" whose tomb was a royal treasure trove when it was excavated in the 1920s. The researchers should be able to tell how closely related various royal mummies were in life.
They haven't taken any genetic material from Tutankhamun, whose mummy was so badly decomposed by minerals buried with him that little beyond the head remained.
"Eventually we hope to be able to tie him in," Woodward said. The main question he and his team are asking about the dynasty's identified mummies is whether their genealogical records as recorded in history match with the genetic material.
"Were these family lines, family dynasties - is that how they were maintained?" he asked. Or were the leaders sometimes linked together by political or military standing, not actually related by bloodlines? "If we have enough of the samples of the 18th dynasty, we ought to be able to determine how closely related these individuals were throughout the dynasty."
Meanwhile, with the humbler people, like those from the cemetery and the museum in San Jose, more general information can be discovered. But it is information that may be even more vital to science.
"One of the major goals of our laboratories is to understand the origin and migrations of the people of the world, where different groups have come together, when they split off, and so forth," Woodward said.