Tag Archives: DNA database

Wonderful Things: more than meets the eye

The toothbrush is ubiquitous in our homes; we pass it without consideration. But exploring the past of this toothbrush, a genuine item from ‘Ground Zero’, unravels a much larger, critical story.

Toothbrush used for the DNA profile identification of Alex Napier

This toothbrush has a story to tell. Image SSPL

The events of September 11th, 2001 need no introduction. These violent attacks altered our image of the world and left friends and families of victims wondering what had happened to their loved ones. In the aftermath, scientists, politicians and service people tried to answer these questions. Crucial to this was the Genes Code Corporation.

 The company worked alongside the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in the unenviable task of identifying the victims of the attacks;  every bit of remain, even the small pieces of tissue, had to be tested to allow families to complete burials.

Because of the severity of the event, the vast majority of individual remains had to be identified through DNA matching. Simple, everyday objects such as this toothbrush as well as items such as razors and clothing, were crucial in providing samples that might yield a billionth of a gram of DNA.

Scientists used these samples to produce the Mass Fatality Identification SYStem, MFISYS (pronounced ‘emphasis’).  This software recorded DNA profiles by sequencing genetic markers such as mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), short tandem repeats (STRs) and single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) then cross referenced this information with dental x-rays, DNA samples, and other important information to develop an account of missing persons.

Through these complex and painful searches, science helped to examine the facts and answer difficult questions. With debates surrounding projects like the DNA Database, many people are turning their attentions to the capabilities and possibilities of such resources- as well as the risks and ethical issues they carry.

Do your students think DNA profiling should be developed more or carefully moderated?

What else could we achieve by furthering the technology, and what problems can they foresee?

Where have you left your DNA today?

If you are planning a visit to the Who am I? gallery, look into booking the Great DNA Database Debate, our show about the national DNA database where your students can find out about DNA identification and voice their opinions in the debate.

 This toothbrush can be found in Who Am I? gallery. Wellcome Wing, First floor.

- Christopher Whitby