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Archive for March, 2011 Monthly Archives

In 2009 a new laboratory was opened at the University of Otago it was expected to unlock secrets about the genetic heritage of Pacific people, animals and plants according to scientists and anthropologists.

The ancient DNA laboratory, allows scientists to extract DNA from bones, teeth and plant matter. The DNA will be analyzed using the latest technology, including the university’s $1 million gene sequencing machine which was purchased in 2008. The facility is a joint project between 3 departments.

Ancient DNA did not necessarily mean from antiquity, according to Professor Matisoo-Smith. In scientific terms, ancient means any DNA samples which were not taken from living subjects. Matisoo-Smith did go on to say that some of the samples the laboratory would handle would be thousands of years old.

Already, projects were planned with samples from many parts of New Zealand, several Pacific islands and from Chile.

Representatives of Maori iwi whose ancestors’ DNA will be analysed in the laboratory spoke of their initial reluctance to allow their ancestors’ remains to be analysed because of the intrusiveness of the process.  They did however agree to allow the DNA analysis after discussions with Prof Matisoo-Smith and her staff which allayed their fears.  Both sides are now hoping the laboratory would provide interesting information on how their ancestors lived, what they ate and what they looked like.

Respecting the remains of people from the past was paramount, said Prof Matisoo-Smith. An ultra-clean environment had to be preserved to ensure ancient DNA samples were not contaminated.

In just a year after opening, an international team of researchers, which includes University of Otago archaeologists Chris Jacomb and Richard Walter, successfully isolated ancient DNA from eggshells of extinct birds.

Previous attempts to recover DNA from fossil eggshell have been unsuccessful. Chris Jacomb said, “this new ability to isolate ancient DNA from moa eggshell opens up exciting new research possibilities not just for palaeobiologists, but also for archaeologists. Indeed, it was this potential to address important questions in New Zealand archaeology that drew Associate Professor Walter and me into this international collaboration.”

Using the DNA from the moa’s provides a powerful new tool in understanding how the demise of moa occurred. “Not only can we now match eggshell to particular moa species, we can develop detailed models of hunting practice by looking at the family relationships of individual birds. This will help us understand hunting and extinction processes.”

Tired of Curly Hair?  Researchers are supposedly developing a pill, which will allow you more control over your hair type.

The secret to straight or curly hair is in your genes.  Scientists have now determined which gene causes your hair to curl and are now working a treatment to allow us more control over our hair from the inside, out.  It is hoped that this breakthrough could lead to a pill to make hair straighter or curlier, rendering the must-have beauty accessories redundant.

In addition to controlling our straight or curly hair, discovery of the “curly gene” may have applications in police work.  For instance, it may help police with DNA found at the scene of the crime by running genetic analysis and testing for this gene to see if the DNA indicates how straight, curly or wavy a suspect’s natural hair should look.

Scientists at Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia have identified the Trichohyalin Gene as being mainly responsible for creating curls. Although it was previously known to play a role in the development of the hair follicle, scientists have announced its role in determining curliness. Professor Nicholas Martin, author of the research, said that a variation in the gene determines the straightness or curliness of hair. He went on to state that: ‘Potentially we can now develop new treatments to make hair curlier or straighter, rather than treating the hair directly. ‘I will be discussing this with a major cosmetic company in Paris in January. ‘The most immediate application is in forensics. ‘We might be able to refine identikit pictures, using DNA to say whether the suspect had straight or curly hair.’

The study appears in the latest edition of the American Journal of Human Genetics.

The Department of Homeland Security, is studding the possible use of a scanner that could map out DNA in less than an hour.  The device is portable and about the size of a desktop printer and is being built by Network Biosystems (or NetBio). The idea is to use the scanner on asylum seekers and refugees.  Current technology enables determinations of relationships between parents and children or among siblings, but it does not effectively prove distant relationships.

The device has explosive potential for misuse. John Verdi, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, stated that, “there are a lot of legal and constitutional hurdles that would have to be overcome for it to be lawfully used.” Not to mention the publics perception based on the reaction to the advanced X-ray devices deployed by the Transportation Security Administration last year.

As a matter of fact, the TSA made a preemptive statement after word of the device emerged. Curtis Burns stated on the company’s blog that the scanner is for use by a TSA sister agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which plans to use it to test for family relationships for foreigners applying for asylum or refugee status. In a direct statement Burns wrote, “TSA is not testing and has no plans to use any technology capable of testing DNA.”

DHS spokesman Chris Ortman said, ”the DHS Science and Technology Directorate expects to receive a prototype DNA analyzer device this summer to conduct a preliminary evaluation of whether this kind of technology could be considered for future use.” He went on to state that, ”at this time, there are no DHS customers, nor is there a timeline for deployment, for this kind of technology this is simply a preliminary test of how the technology performs.”

DHS would be required to meet the federal requirements for the protection of personally identifiable information stipulated by the Privacy Act of 1974.  According to Verdi, ”those requirements and obligations have to be observed. The department would be well advised to vet this technology through its privacy committees and its internal privacy apparatus. In addition, there needs to be independent oversight of a program like this. There needs to be oversight by lawmakers and oversight by citizens who are experts in these areas of technology, health records, and security to ensure the agency is not collecting data, retaining data, or sharing data contrary to law and regulation.”

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