Research in the field of ancient DNA testing began in the 1980s. Prior to that time, we did not know that DNA existed in the remains of organisms not living. This little book is all about the study of ancient DNA and discusses a wide range of mysteries, now solved thanks to DNA testing.
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Such a Little Book
For such a little book, it packs a big wallop. At only 198 pages not counting the sources of information and the Index, The DNA Detectives, provides a fascinating look at an intriguing and popular area of scientific research.
The books subtitles are more interesting than its table of contents:
Causes of Extinction
What Became of the Neanderthals?
Sources of Dinosaur DNA
From Jurassic Park to reality: Dinosaur Cloning
Was the Black Death the Same as the Plague?
Columbus and Tuberculosis
The Great Influenza Pandemic
The Future of Moa Research
A Brief History of the Russian Revolution
DNA and the Russian Royals
So Who Was Anna Anderson?
Solving the Titanic Mystery
Was Karl Wilhelm Naundorff Louis XVII?
DNA from Dirt
The Ice Man Cometh?
Of particular interest to me was Meyers description of how the earth changed through the Ice Age. During this period temperatures cycled, each lasting several thousand years. During the cold or glacial cycle, temperatures were much colder than today.
Enormous sheets of ice covered portions of northern Europe: Scandinavia, Britain and North America as far as New York. Since so much of what was normally water was frozen in ice, more land was exposed. Deserts were larger and there were fewer forests. As you could imagine, vegetation was different as were the animals that depended on it to live. Sea levels were lower. Australia and New Guinea were connected by a land bridge that is now submerged beneath the deeper sea. A land bridge connecting Alaska and Siberia has been replaced by the Bering Strait. But during the Ice Age, animals could move freely between the continents of Europe and America.
Meyers writes that although we think of the Ice Age as over, it hasnt really ended. She says we are now in an interglacial phase that began 10,000 years ago and in the next few thousand years it may end. Some experts believe the ice may expand again, others think global warming may have an effect on when or if this occurs.
Traveling Made Easier with a Trunk
In her discussion of the extinction of the woolly mammoth, the best known of all the megafauna, she writes about their well-preserved remains in permafrost. Permafrost is permanently frozen ground which is still found today from Siberia to Alaska, Greenland and Northern Canada. These animals have been so well-preserved that they still have skin and hair. Partially digested food has even been found in their stomachs. Since they are close relatives to the African and Asian elephants, how did they manage to move so far north?
Meyers says they either crossed a land bridge between Africa and Europe through the Strait of Gibraltar or perhaps via the Middle East. Some spread across Europe into northern Asia and eventually went across the Bering land bridge to North America.
Researchers have begun searching for the perfect specimen to clone a woolly mammoth. Ethics divides those who think its irresponsible to spend millions to clone a mammoth when those millions could be better put to use by saving animals who are near extinction.
Would it be possible for scientists to clone dinosaurs? If so, it would give new meaning to the word terrorism. How old can DNA be before it is considered a poor candidate for study? According to Meyer, 100,000 years old. That is, until scientists can find better ways of testing.
Dinosaurs ruled the earth for 170 millions years; humans only 200,000 years. Meyers sprinkles statistics like these throughout the book. What could possibly have extinguished such a successful rule? Meyers attempts to answer that question with compelling evidence.
In years of late, Columbus, the famed explorer has taken many hits from historians. Meyers continues the bashing. In The DNA Detectives, not only is he not the first to discover America, he is also responsible for the devastating outbreaks of tuberculosis to this country, according to Meyer. The statistics she brings to the table are sobering.
On Columbuss second trip to America, he sailed with 17 ships carrying 1200 people. They brought horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and wheat. They also brought armed troops. Soon power struggles began with the indigenous Americans. Slavery ensued.
The health of the slaves deteriorated: influenza, smallpox, measles, plague, malaria, tuberculosis and the common cold. Estimates are that between 50 and 80 per cent were killed while the Europeans remained relatively healthy. Meyers speaks to why this occurred and also dwells on the tuberculosis debate: did tuberculosis exist before Columbus arrive or did he introduce the disease to the Americas? DNA testing solves the ancient mystery.
After existing two years in a mental institution, Anna Anderson claimed to be Anastasia, daughter of Tsar Nicholas Romanov and his wife, Tsarina Alexandra. Many have claimed to be descendants of Russian royalty throughout the decades, (including the Crane brothers in an episode from the sitcom Frasier; as it turns out, they learn that they are really descendants of thieves of Russian Royal effects.)
Anna, however, bore a striking resemblance to Anastasia. She spoke fluent Russian and also had vivid memories of her childhood in the Russian royal family. She had widespread public support except for the surviving members of the Romanov and Hesse families who believed she was a fraud.
If she really were Anastasia, she would be heir to a fortune, wouldnt she? A lawsuit followed and lasted on and off for 37 years. What did the court rule? After her death, scientists compared her DNA to DNA from the Romanov family. The living relative most suited to the job was none other than Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II. Prince Philip and Tsarina Alexandra are blood relatives and direct descendants of Queen Victoria. Prince Philip is the grand nephew of the Tsarina and therefore blood relative of her children. He generously donated a blood sample to be tested. Of all the stories in the book, I thought this was the most surprising. The results of the DNA comparisons are startling.
The photos are in black and white and are few and far between. However, when you see one it stops you in your tracks. Anastasia and her three sisters and brother are one of the few photos included in the book.
This Writers Thoughts on DNA
Although DNA evidence is considered final, I have to admit I dont feel so certain myself. Considering all the potential problems with DNA investigation: poor DNA samples due to environmental conditions water, for example or age of the remains; also contamination due to the fact that DNA is EVERYWHERE in the air, our skin cells, our breath, etc., how can we ever really be sure of DNA results?
Interestingly, there are times when contamination of a study can lead to good results, see ANGIOGENESIS: THE REVOLUTIONARY NON-TOXIC WAY TO TREAT CANCER. Contamination, however, usually deems a study null and void.
Scientists are so eager to find DNA matches that their eagerness (and perhaps greed) seems to blind them to what they actually find. Independent investigations are supposed to have cured this problem. (Its similar to getting a second opinion from a doctor.) But whos to say that their findings are correct? True, its helpful to have their corroboration. I guess its the fact that so many have previously cried, Wolf! when no wolf existed that makes me a skeptic. You may agree after youve read the book.
Anna Meyer, as of the books publishing, copyright 2005, was completing her PhD at the Australian National Universitys Centre of the Public Awareness of Science. She has an honors degree in Genetics.
Each topic in the book is written like a novel. You may like some of the endings, some you may not. Its a quick read, interesting and informative. Find your own favorite topic in the book and enjoy!
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