09:01:09 am on
Sunday 16 Jun 2024

DNA Dark and Light
David Simmonds

The advance of science is staggering. I’m looking at DNA matching. Two items grabbed by attention; one on the dark side, the other on the light side.

► DNA helps nab a killer.

Let’s deal with the dark side first. California police caught a man believed to be the long undetected Golden State Killer. They used DNA samples taken at the crime scenes, matching the samples with the DNA profile of the accused. What made it remarkable was the match was with the DNA of one of the great-, great-, great- grandparents of the accused; someone that lived in the early 1800s, well before DNA was invented (sic).

The police were unable to find a match in their own database of DNA samples from criminals. In a last ditched effort, they tried their luck with a public DNA registry. The match enabled them to narrow down the search, somewhat, as recreated in twenty-five family trees.

Eventually, police eliminated all but one suspect and obtained a sample of his DNA, surreptitiously. It matched the crime scene DNA. The ability to match DNA led police the right haystack, in a crowded field of haystacks.

DNA matching has become a high-value investigative tool. Thus, kudos to the police for their determination; it took more than forty years. Kudos also go to both the distant ancestor, of the accused, who will remain blissfully ignorant of his role and his contemporary relative who saw fit to register the DNA, not knowing the significance of his or her decision.

► DNA testing and the Loch Ness Monster.

Now, let’s deal with the lighter side of DNA testing. The Canadian Press reports DNA matching techniques going to work in the hunt for the Loch Ness Monster, known as Nessie. She or he is the supposedly prehistoric creature that lives in the cold depths of the famed Scottish lake, Loch Ness. Nessie surfaces every so often to play peek-a-boo when it knows no cameras are around; this has been a local one-horse industry for over eighty years.

Every so often, someone undertakes a bold new expedition, certain their technique will provide the definitive confirmation of her or his existence 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 Loch Ness. 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.

Now a scientist, Neil Gemmell, from the University of Otago, in Dunedin, New Zealand, is taking his turn. His premise is that when creatures move about in the water, they leave behind traces of their DNA.

He will thus take three hundreds samples of water from the Loch. Using the latest DNA sequencing technology, he’ll extract the DNA from the organic material and then compare it against 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, but if the DNA matches only known creatures, it will suggest there is no such exotic creature in Loch Ness. Either way, “what we’ll get is a really nice survey of the biodiversity of the Loch Ness,” says Gemmell, or, 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.”

It’s hard to imagine that, if DNA sampling, by Gemmell, comes up with a “nothing unknown” result, hard core believers will give up and go away. They have too much invested in Nessie to give way to something as humble as the scientific method. Gemmell is of the same mind, noting, “In our lives, we want there still to be mysteries, some of which we will ultimately solve.”

What will come next? Will scientists now try to rub the bark off trees in the wilds of British Columbia looking for DNA to confirm, if possible, the existence of Sasquatch? Will they invade Lewis Carroll’s back garden to look for DNA from fairies? Will they do the same for mermaids, dragons and unicorns?

Might extra-terrestrials be in the sights of DNA tests? How would we know whether they even have DNA, let alone what it looks like? What of ghosts, would they have a DNA match with the departed; maybe no DNA at all?

► All myths are fair games.

Now they’ve started on the Nellie of Loch Ness, all legends and myths fair scientific game. I can hardly wait for the results. Maybe, come Christmas, some DNA researcher will snag the napkin Santa used to wipe the droll from his chin after downing the cookies or libations you left out for him.

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 Pete Hamill and 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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