Revealing Hidden Mysteries with Ancient DNA

February 14, 2019

Lakehead University’s Paleo-DNA Laboratory was born out of necessity. Back in 1996, there were no laboratories that performed DNA analysis on archaeological samples (paleo or ancient DNA) on a fee for service basis. Anthropology professor Dr. El Molto, who had acquired vast amounts of human material from his site in the Dahkleh Oasis, Egypt, had nowhere to bring his samples for analysis to examine the relationships between the individuals he was unearthing. So, he decided to establish his own laboratory at the Lakehead University-Thunder Bay campus and fill this unique void to the anthropology community. He acquired some second-hand equipment, extra lab space, and sent some students to train with the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) in the United States. The focus of the training was on mitochondrial DNA, the type of DNA most commonly associated with archaeological or degraded remains.

The Paleo-DNA Laboratory became one of the first Canadian laboratories to develop mitochondrial DNA analysis techniques. Mitochondrial DNA analysis clearly holds numerous benefits over other techniques, notably in cases where DNA is so degraded that other techniques simply will not produce any results. This singular achievement by the Paleo-DNA Laboratory put Thunder Bay on the world map of ancient DNA analyses. Soon after, enough interest was generated that the lab began offering training programs in ancient DNA analysis. To date, this training program has hosted many international students from England, Australia, France, the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, and the United States.

One of the first publicized projects the laboratory worked on had to do with the identification of a body found floating after the Titanic disaster. The body was that of a small child and was recovered by the men of the Mackay-Bennett, a Canadian recovery ship. Since the body was never claimed, it was laid to rest in Halifax’s Fairview Lawn Cemetery. Over time, the ground water surrounding the grave eroded most of the remains except for a small fragment of bone. The Paleo-DNA Laboratory was part of an extensive team of researchers, including genealogists, who identified the child using mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Mitochondrial DNA is a maternally inherited DNA that is passed down through the maternal lineage from mother to children. It is the most likely type of DNA that remains in an old, degraded sample. The mtDNA of the child was compared to the mtDNA of possible living maternal (female lineage) relatives for identification. The unknown child was identified as Sidney Leslie Goodwin, a 19 month old English boy. See more here.

The Lakehead University lab was also involved in one of the first identifications of a World War I soldier whose body was discovered during construction of a gas pipeline south of Avion, France in 2003. In this case, there were no living maternal relatives that could be tested so another type of DNA would be used that focussed on the paternal lineage. The Y-chromosome is only present in male individuals and is paternally inherited genetic information that is passed on from father to son. Using degraded DNA recovery techniques and Y-chromosome analysis, the genetic profile of the soldier was compared to possible living paternal (male lineage) relatives for identification. The soldier was identified as Private Herbert Peterson from Alberta.

The Paleo-DNA Laboratory does not just focus on human DNA. Sometime after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans in 2005, a lampshade was purchased at a yard sale. The vendor claimed the lampshade was ‘made from the skin of Jews’. Artifacts made from human material are known to have been fashioned during the Holocaust from places such as Buchenwald concentration camp. Upon purchasing this particular lamp, it was taken to a lab in the United States for DNA testing to determine whether it was in fact made of human skin or not. The results of that testing revealed the presence of human DNA. Fast forward many years later, the Paleo-DNA Laboratory was called upon to use their well-crafted skills of degraded DNA testing to perform further genetic analysis on the lampshade to determine sex identification and deep ancestry. As it turned out, none of that information could be resolved since in the end, the lampshade was determined to be made of cow skin and not human skin as initially concluded. Human contamination plays a significant role in DNA analysis and in this case knowing how to control and overcome it is what led to an unexpected conclusion.

Helping find genetic clues to solving ancient mysteries has become the laboratory’s forte. The Paleo-DNA Laboratory takes an ancient or degraded sample, works their magic, and recovers DNA where other laboratories fail. Besides their ancient DNA testing, they offer a range of other services such as paternity and relationship testing, unknown sample identification, and custom DNA analysis training and consultation. For more information on Lakehead University’s Paleo-DNA Laboratory visit the website at www.ancientdna.com or contact paleodna@lakeheadu.ca .