08:40:01 am on
Thursday 20 Sep 2018

Loch Ness Monster DNA
David Simmonds

The advance of science is staggering. The pace is so fast. This week, I’m looking at DNA matching. Two items grabbed by attention, one being on the dark side, the other on the light side.


DNA from 1800s catches California killer.

Let’s deal with the dark side first. California police recently seized a person believed to be the long undetected Golden State Killer. They used DNA samples taken at crime scenes, matching them up to the DNA profile of the accused.

What made it remarkable was that the match was in the DNA of one of the great-.great- great-grandparents of the accused that lived in the early 1800s; well before DNA was invented.

The police had been unable to find a match in their own records of DNA samples from criminals. Then they tried their luck with a public DNA registry. That match enabled them to narrow down the search somewhat, recreating twenty-five family trees along the way.

Eventually, police eliminated all but one suspect and obtained a sample of his DNA surreptitiously. It matched the crime scene DNA. Police likened their success to finding a needle in a haystack, but truth be told, it was the DNA matching that got them focussed on the right haystack, in the right hayfield. DNA matching has obviously become a high-value investigative tool.

Kudos to the police for their determination over the more than forty years it took them. Kudos, too, to the distant ancestor of the accused, who will remain blissfully ignorant about his role, and to his contemporary relative who saw fit to register the DNA, not knowing how consequential that decision would prove to be.

Now for the lighter side of genetic science: the Canadian Press reports the Loch Ness monster is now in the sights of DNA matching techniques. The Monster, known as Nessie, a supposedly prehistoric creature that lives in the cold depths of the famed Scottish lake, surfacing every so often to play peek-a-boo when it knows no cameras are around, has been a one-horse industry for over eighty years.

Every so often, someone undertakes a bold expedition, confident a new technique will provide final confirmation of the existence of Nessie or non-existence. A couple of years ago, it was submarine drones that were going to do the job. Indeed, for a moment they thought they had located the Monster on the floor of the lake. In a way, they had: it turned out to be a model of Nessie made for the 1969 Billy Wilder movie, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which sank during production.


Latent findings of DNA research.

Now, a scientist, from the University of Otago, in Dunedin, New Zealand, is taking his turn. The premise of work by Dr Neil Gemmell (above) is that when creatures move about in the water, they leave behind traces of their DNA. He will thus take three hundred samples of water from Loch Ness. Then, using the latest sequencing technology, extract the DNA from the organic material and compare it to a database of known species.

His hypothesis is that if he finds DNA that doesn’t match any known DNA, it will indicate that there is or has been a hitherto unknown life form down there. It could be Nessie. If the DNA does match only a known creature, it will suggest that there is no such exotic creature in the lake.

Either way, says Gemmell, “What we’ll get is a really nice survey of the biodiversity of the Loch Ness.” There’s some criticism of Gemmel, though. As the chief of the Scottish Society of New Zealand observed somewhat more tartly, “It’s a good way to get a trip to Scotland.”

If DNA samples, drawn by Gemmell, lead to a nothing-unknown result, it’s hard to imagine that hard-core believers will give up and go away. They have too much invested in the Nessie to give way to something as humble as the scientific method. Besides, Gemmell is of the same mind; he says, “In our lives, we want there still to be mysteries, some of which we will ultimately solve.”


Where does DNA testing go?

What will come next? Will scientists now try to rub the bark off trees in the wilds of British Columbia looking for DNA to test for the existence of Sasquatch? Will they invade back garden, of the home of Lewis Carroll, to look for DNA from fairies? Will they do the same for mermaids, dragons and unicorns? What of extra-terrestrials: how would we know whether they even have DNA, let alone what it looks like? What of ghosts: would their DNA match with their departed selves or have no DNA at all?

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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