How the Double Helix
Is Solving the Puzzle
Of the Past
(Thunder's Mouth Press)DNA are those spaghetti chromosomes that you and I and, apparently, everyone (even Trent Lott) carry around in our cells: bones, skin, hair, kidney, tootsies --- everywhere, in fact --- that assures our mothers and fathers that when we appear in utero we will have our heads up there, our feet down there, and all those other parts where they belong, instead of, say, your nose being in your navel, your fanny on top of your head, your private parts on your foot like, say, the banana spider. Banana spiders mate with their feet."It is a rather complex process," says Meyer, in an amusing understatement: "but for our purposes it is enough to know that there are tens of thousands of genes on each individual's set of chromosomes, which can interact in a multitude of ways to influence different aspects of that individual ... DNA can be extracted from virtually any part of a plant or animal, including skin, hair, blood, bone, teeth, seeds, leaves, insects, fungi and even bacterial colonies."
Strangely enough for such an important molecule, pure DNA is not actually very spectacular to look at: it is a whitish, thread-like material, which can be scooped up and wound around a glass rod --- a common, if rather nerdy, source of entertainment for undergraduate genetics students in their laboratory classes.
Ms. Mayer is interested in what is known as "ancient DNA research," in which scientists try to extract enough DNA from old dinosaur bones so they can sell the plot-line to Hollywood and retire from the daily grind of autoclaves and petri plates, retire to Paris.
The cases that are described in The DNA Detectives include a search for the chromosomes of the moa, a nine-foot tall bird-brain from New Zealand that disappeared apparently as soon as scientists started looking for it 175 years ago. Then there are investigations into the Black Plague (14th Century Europe), tuberculosis (15th Century Americas) and the flu pandemic of 1918 - 1919 (the world).
This last, she tells us, may have killed as many as 100,000,000 individuals, mostly the young and the healthy. "This flu seemed to spread in a very strange way, appearing to jump about randomly, popping up in places that did not seem to have direct person-to-person contact with other areas with the disease." Based on genetic research, a scientist at the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology came up with samples from victims' lungs (preserved, in one case, in a body buried in the permafrost of an Inuit village in Alaska) and, from these, posited that the virulence was caused not by the virus itself but by the body's overreaction: the victims' immune systems produced "a particularly strong response to it," during which
armies of white blood cells and fluids could rush to the lungs, leading to the pneumonia that killed so many.
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The chapters in DNA Detectives on moas and thylacines seem to go on far too long, but the detective work into the plagues and the flu make for compelling reading. And, too, the chapter on searching out Romanov survivors of the Russian Revolution --- if there were any survivors --- is tantalizing.
However, our author might want to seek out a suitable editor for her next venture. Like the white blood cells in the 1918 flu pandemic, the adjectival modifiers here can leave one gasping for air: "very skeptical," "truly remarkable," "the scientific community was very excited," "the death rate was simply huge." Meyer tells us that the Russian Revolution's "crunch time" came in 1917; that there were a number of "really good moa finds" in caves; and Funnily enough, no one seems to recorded just what happened to the horse. The introductory word, funnily enough, appears in my ancient and battered Webster's Third, but shouldn't.
--- Lolita Lark