Thursday, September 1, 2011

DNA Helps Identify Titanic's Unknown Child As English, Not Finnish

This morning, I retrieved the September issue of The Hudson Green, the newsletter of the Hudson Genealogical Study Group and read the front-page article entitled  "Tiny Shoes of Dead Toddler Help Unlock Mystery of Titanic's 'unknown child'" [click here for the newsletter]. 

It immediately caught my interest because it tells how an unknown victim of the Titanic sinking was originally identified as Eino Viljami Panula of Finland (my paternal ancestry is Finnish). As I read on, I learned that the Panula child was only 13 months old when he died at sea.

The article explains that after additional DNA testing and other studies, the unknown child was finally identified as Sidney Leslie Goodwin, who was 19 months old when he perished on the Titantic.

The article was well-written and informative, but I decided to do an Internet search for any additional information.  Google turned up another article, this one on the Science on MSNBC website. This article was longer and had more detail about the testing that went into finally establishing the child's identity.

According to this second article, the effort to determine the child's identity using genetics began a little over a decade ago, when Ryan Parr, an adjunct professor at Lakehead University in Ontario who has worked with DNA extracted from ancient human remains, watched some videos about the Titanic.

He and his collaborators looked at another, less mutation-prone section of the mitochondrial DNA, where they found a single difference that indicated that Goodwin might actually be the unknown child. The Armed Forces lab confirmed this when they found a second, single difference in another section of the DNA. "Luckily, it was a rare difference, so that is what gives you 98 percent certainty the identification is correct," Parr said.

The report concludes by stating that an article describing the genetic analysis that led to the final identification of the unknown child's remains was published in the June 2011 issue of the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics and is available online for a fee.

The abstract, however, is free and gives a good idea of the technical scope of the article, and particularly the role of mitochondrial DNA in making the determination. The abstract  follows: "This report describes a re-examination of the remains of a young male child recovered in the Northwest Atlantic following the loss of the Royal Mail Ship Titanic in 1912 and buried as an unknown in Halifax, Nova Scotia shortly thereafter. Following exhumation of the grave in 2001, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) hypervariable region 1 sequencing and odontological examination of the extremely limited skeletal remains resulted in the identification of the child as Eino Viljami Panula, a 13-month-old Finnish boy. This paper details recent and more extensive mitochondrial genome analyses that indicate the remains are instead most likely those of an English child, Sidney Leslie Goodwin. The case demonstrates the benefit of targeted mtDNA coding region typing in difficult forensic cases, and highlights the need for entire mtDNA sequence databases appropriate for forensic use."

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