Will Saliva Help Solve The Amelia Earhart Mystery?
On March 17, 1937, aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, took off from Oakland, California to make history, by becoming the first woman to fly around the world. However, On July 2nd, just 7,000 miles shy of her goal, her Lockheed Electra twin engine vanished into the Central Pacific Ocean. Despite an extensive search that cost the US government $4 million USD, neither the plane nor any remains of Ms. Earhart or her navigator, Fred Noonan, were found.
Though she was officially declared dead in 1939, her disappearance continues to intrigue researchers, till today. In 1988, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery initiated a project, to try solve the Earhart/Noonan mystery. Over the years, they have sent six expeditions to the deserted Nikumaroro island, that lies 1,800 miles south of Hawaii, which is believed to be where Earhart and Noonan crash landed, over 70 years ago.
While the expeditions unearthed small pieces of evidence like a mirror from a woman's compact, buttons and a zipper from a flight jacket, human remains were elusive, until the discovery of three bone fragments, in 2009.
Though the researchers assert that the bones belong to Amelia Earhart, they have been unable to prove it, since all possible sources of Ms. Earhart's DNA have dried up, or are considered unreliable. Now, scientists may have thought of a way to solve the mystery - By creating a genetic profile of the legendary aviator from the saliva extracted from envelopes she licked, to seal letters.
The groundbreaking research is being headed by Dongya Yang, a genetic archaeologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. From the over 400 pieces of correspondence available to them, her team picked four letters that Ms. Earhart had written to her sister. They figured that since these were personal, the aviator must have sealed the envelopes herself. Lucky for them, during that era, people always opened letters by cutting a slit on the side, leaving the seal intact.
To extract the saliva that contains the DNA, Ms. Yang will carefully steam the seals open. Once she collects enough of a sample, she and her team hope to gather two kinds of DNA - Mitochondrion, which is inherited from mothers and Nuclear, which the one that contains most of the person's genetic information. Once they are able to get both, they will create a complete genetic profile, which will help verify if these or any other remains that may be found in the future, can be traced back to Amelia Earhart.
However, there are a lot of hurdles - For one, nobody has ever tried extracting DNA in this manner before. Also, while the Mitochondrion DNA is easy to get because multiple copies exist in every cell, the Nuclear DNA may be harder, since each cell carries only one copy. Whether they are able to get enough of the latter, will depend on how Ms. Earhart licked her letters - lightly or with a lot of saliva.
To confirm that the resulting genetic profile is indeed Ms. Earhart's the team will verify it, by comparing it with her still-living relatives and also, from saliva extracted from a letter her sister wrote. If everything goes according to plan, Ms. Yang believes she will be able to complete the genetic profile in a few months - And maybe, just maybe, finally help solve the mystery of the missing aviator!
Resources: news.national geographic.com,cbsnews.com,abcnews.go.com.