A typical day for physicians at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) can often feel anything but typical, as they diagnose and treat patients with a wide range of conditions. Occasionally, though, a situation throws a curveball to even the most practiced physician. That was the case recently when MGH physicians played a key role in solving a 4,000-year-old mummy mystery. 

The mystery at hand: Was the mummy, excavated by archaeologists in 1915, the remains of ancient Egyptian Governor Djehutynakht, or his wife? Curators at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), which had acquired the remains, were keen to find out for their display. To get to the bottom of the question, the curators turned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). But there was one problem: To that point, there had been no successful extraction of DNA from a mummy that old. That’s where MGH would come in.

MGH’s Rajiv Gupta, MD, a neuroradiologist, took the call from the MFA curator, and the investigation began with a CT scan revealing unusual findings: the mummy’s head was missing cheekbones and part of its jaw. To show how their removal—presumably for an ancient burial ceremony—was possible, the doctors called on an MGH maxillofacial surgeon to recreate the gruesome surgery with tools available 4,000 years ago.

With that insight uncovered, the physicians still grappled with the question of how to best extract DNA for the FBI to test. The answer, they concluded, would lie in the teeth, which are known as “tiny time capsules” encapsulating a wealth of an individual’s genetic and medical information. Joined by Fabio Nunes, MD, then an MGH molecular biologist, the physicians performed a delicate extraction process, removing a perfectly preserved, cavity-free tooth. “My main concern was: Don’t drop it, don’t drop it, don’t drop it,” says Dr. Nunes.

They didn’t drop it—in fact, the molar later made history, becoming the source of one of the world’s first DNA samples successfully extracted from a mummy. With it, after years of effort, the FBI lab of Odile Loreille, PhD, finally cracked the DNA code: The chromosomes were X and Y. And the mummy’s identity, Governor Djehutynakht, was finally revealed. 

To read more about the investigation and MGH’s role in it, visit The New York Times.

Image credits:

Head of the mummy of Djehutynnakht; Detail of front side panel of the outer coffin of Djehutynakht; Statuette of Governor Djehutynakht; Djehutynakht’s tooth extraction, 2009.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Harvard University—Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition

Photography © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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