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Paleo-DNA Lab a jewel in Thunder Bay's crown

The following article appeared in the Chronicle Journal on Monday, August 25, 2008. 

Special to the Chronicle-Journal
Paleo-DNA Lab: A Jewel in Thunder Bay’s Crown

by Tim Anderson

Move over CSI, Northwestern Ontario has the real deal: Lakehead University’s Paleo-DNA Laboratory. It would surprise most Thunder Bay residents to know that the forensic marvels seen on television can be found right here at home. The Paleo-DNA Lab, or PDL, is a world-class facility capable of performing DNA analyses on severely degraded and ancient samples. When remains are found but their identity is in question, archaeologists around the entire globe send them to Lakehead University’s PDL for analysis.

Lakehead’s Paleo-DNA Lab was established in 1996 by Dr. El Molto and over the years has been guided by two other world-renowned anthropologists — Dr. Ryan Parr and Dr. Carney Matheson.  Their research achievements have placed Lakehead’s Paleo-DNA Laboratory in the media spotlight time and time again.

Very often, no information is given to the PDL staff about the origins or context of the samples for analysis. No bias can be allowed to enter into the process, and having no information about the sample ensures that the lab’s results are objective and entirely credible. Given the significance of many of the cases sent to the PDL, it is no wonder that such secrecy surrounds the samples being analyzed. Recently the PDL’s Scientific Officer, Dr. Carney Matheson, used the lab to identify the remains of World War I soldiers found at Vimy Ridge in France. In another case, centred on the Titanic disaster, the PDL played a role in the identification of the Titanic’s “unknown child” buried in Fairview Lawn Cemetery in Halifax.

When a tomb was unearthed in Jerusalem that contained names like Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and something remarkably like “Mary Magdalene,” bone fragments were sent half-way around the world for analysis at the PDL in Thunder Bay. As was discussed in James Cameron’s Discovery Channel documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” the Thunder Bay lab’s findings were debate-provoking. The PDL analyzed the mitochondrial DNA in two samples from the tomb. The first was from an ossuary (or bone box) inscribed with the name Jesus. The second sample was believed to have been from Mary Magdalene’s bone fragment. DNA analysis showed that the two individuals were not maternally related, leading to questions about why they were buried together. Since only family members were buried in each tomb, this suggests that they may have been related through wedlock.

The documentary film “Bloodline,” currently in release, also controversially seeks to explore the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, as well as to prove the existence of the couple’s offspring and the Priory of Sion; and again, the Paleo-DNA Laboratory has been called on to conduct DNA analysis. An undisturbed tomb was found in the town of Rennes-le-Château in southern France. The mummy inside wears a garment with an unmistakable Knights Templar cross on it, and has sparked a debate about a powerful and hidden treasure rumored to have been carried out of Jerusalem by the knights. A hair sample was extracted from the undisturbed corpse by a remote device, and was sent to the PDL for analysis. Despite the severely degraded sample, the lab was able to determine that the body’s genetic origins lay in the northern middle-eastern region. The speculation sparked by the PDL’s findings has led to plans for a full excavation of the tomb so that more substantial samples (such as teeth) can be analyzed for more accurate identification of the body.

Much of the PDL’s remarkable success can be attributed to the academics who guided its development in the early years and the dedicated staff who take care of day-to-day operations. One staff member is Lakehead alumnus Stephen Fratpietro, a forensic analyst and PDL’s Technical Manager. He has a host of responsibilities that demonstrate the depth of his commitment; these responsibilities include maintaining the integrity of the facility, obtaining and maintaining the lab’s accreditation, maintaining equipment, and overseeing training and orientation,

Ancient DNA Training Program

Such a broad range of responsibilities comes hand in hand with a facility as flexible as the PDL. In addition to case work, the lab is heavily involved in education efforts. 2008 is the tenth anniversary of the Ancient DNA Training Program. The course spans three weeks in the spring, and hosts 20 students from all over the globe: England, Australia, France, the United Arab Emirates, as well as Thunder Bay and the rest of Canada have all sent course members in recent years. During the intensive program, PDL staff instruct in DNA extraction, amplification, and copying, as well as different methods for analyzing both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. Students are not limited to lectures, as they get practical lab work. Other universities simply cannot offer the hands-on experience available at the PDL. Students who have completed the course in the past have gone on to work for DNA companies in the United States, as well as for the RCMP. Those participants interested in research can return to the PDL through the visiting scholar program to complete their research at the facility for academic credit.

To respond to the enormous local interest generated by the lab, the Paleo-DNA Laboratory holds lectures at Lakehead University and in area schools periodically. Every year, PDL participates in Biotechnology Week and in Lakehead University’s Research & Innovation Week. Tours and presentations are arranged for local high school and middle-school students, with the aim of demonstrating the difference between the real science of DNA and the fictional television dramas which make it all look so easy.

While facilities similar to the PDL do exist elsewhere in North America and around the world, Stephen Fratpietro points out that the Thunder Bay lab operates in a unique way that benefits a niche market. “There are lots of laboratories that do their own research, and there are quite a few in Canada that do ancient DNA as well, but they don’t offer their services to the public.” Operation Supervisor Renée Fratpietro sums up the PDL’s unique standing by remarking that “we’re a forensically accredited university lab; there are accredited labs which aren’t located at universities, there are university labs that aren’t accredited, but our combination is unusual.” The implication is clear: Lakehead University’s Paleo-DNA Laboratory is an invaluable resource unlike any other.

Last updated August 28, 2008

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