Saturday, October 11, 2008

Stalking The Wild DNA

By Pat Browning

Polishing FULL CIRCLE for its debut as a “new” book with a new publisher, I’ve been going through the original, page by page, deleting some signature tags and making other small adjustments. A reexamination of my DNA research brought everything else to a halt this week.

When I was writing the original book, I came across a 1996 article at, headlined “DNA Attache is the Beginning of a Revolution.” The article described a DNA Analysis Kit developed by the Army for battlefield forensic tests. It was the size of a briefcase, cost $80,000, and, among other things, could detect Hepatitis C or HIV in about 20 minutes.

I was so intrigued by the idea that I wrote it into my book. Unfortunately, I overlooked one small item. Part of the kit was a hand-held DNA copier that performed polymerase chain reaction (PCR) “from traces of blood or other cells.”

I blithely applied it to bones that had been buried for almost 40 years. Fortunately, solving the mystery didn’t depend on DNA, so the average reader wouldn’t have noticed my mistake. Now, seven years later, I get a chance to correct it.

Right off the bat I learned two things: (1) There’s more than one kind of DNA; and (2) Forensics DNA is a subject best left to experts.

Paternity and ancestry DNA tests are fairly simple and quick. They can be done at home, and turned over to a private commercial laboratory for testing. One such lab, with 1800 specimen collection sites scattered throughout the U.S., posts its rates on the Internet -- starting with $99 for a paternity test, results promised in 3 to 5 days., with a cheek-swab kit, offers access to your personal interactive world map showing possible genetic cousins and your probable familial connection to them. You also get your ancient ancestral migration map, and ancestral Haplogroup names. If you want to get a headache, look up “Haplogroup” and try to figure out what it means.

One of the best web sites from a layman’s viewpoint is run by a Vietnam vet named Col. Joe Schlatter, U.S. Army, Retired, who was involved with POWs-MIAs during two assignments from 1986 to 1990.

In a section of his web site titled “The Identification Process,” he notes that from a skeleton, a forensic specialist can determine race, sex, age, height, musculature, and previous injury. He explains each of those procedures in detail and plain English.

Here’s an excerpt from his section on DNA:

Complicating matters are the fact that there are two types of DNA: nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Nuclear DNA is in the nucleus of the cell and it decays as the flesh decays. MtDNA is in the mitochondria, or the wall, of the cell. It survives for a long time and can be recovered from bones.

And here is an important point: mtDNA is transmitted through the maternal line. Thus. your mtDNA will match that of your mother and grandmother but not of your father … MtDNA testing is destructive. You have to cut off a small piece of the bone and treat it with chemicals, basically dissolving it in the process.”
(End quote)

Col. Schlatter includes a chart showing how mtDNA is passed through the maternal side of a family. The web site is at

For writers of crime fiction, a more complete explanation of forensic DNA can be found at the web page for the Human Genome Project at:

The site is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, and it’s heavy stuff. There are side discussions of some interesting uses of DNA forensic identification, ranging from identifying September 11th victims, to the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, to the Romanovs of Russia.

And lest we forget: the NFL used DNA technology to tag all the Super Bowl XXXIV balls, to prevent sports memorabilia fraud. Quoting from the web site: “The footballs were marked with an invisible, yet permanent, strand of synthetic DNA. The DNA strand is unique and is verifiable any time in the future using a specially calibrated laser.”

This week’s research is a good example of a writer knowing more than he or she can put into a mystery scene. In my “new” book it will be reduced to a few lines of dialogue. I’ll know the difference, though, which makes the delay worthwhile.

And the beat goes on.


Mark W. Danielson said...

Pat, your DNA story brings back memories of a DNA synthesizer that caused an in-flight fire. The synthesizer was undeclared hazardous material—a cargo pilot's worst nightmare. Miraculously, the DC-10 made it safely to the ground and the crew evacuated without injury, but the entire aircraft became engulfed in flames as soon as the cockpit windows were opened. There were so many interesting elements to this disaster that I had to write a novel about it. No one would have believed it had I written it as a documentary. Nothing like DNA to spark one’s interest. . .

Pat Browning said...

What is the novel's title?