Mitochondrial DNA variation is extensively studied in several other disciplines besides forensic science. Medical scientists have linked a number of diseases to mutations in mtDNA (see Wallace et al. 1999). Evolutionary biologists examine human mtDNA sequence variation relative to other species in an effort to determine relationships. A good example of this application is the determination that Neanderthals are not the direct ancestors of modern humans based on control region sequences determined from ancient bones (Krings et al. 1997). Molecular anthropologists study differences in mtDNA sequences from various global population groups to examine questions of ancestry and migration of peoples throughout history (Relethford 2003). Hundreds of papers have been published in these fields over the past decade or two. Genetic genealogists are now using mtDNA and Y chromosome markers in an attempt to trace ancestry where paper trails run cold (Brown 2002).
In the past few years a number of interesting historical identifications have been performed with the aid of mtDNA testing. Remains from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier associated with the Vietnam War have been identified as those of Michael Blassie (D.N.A. Box 10.1). Bones discovered in Russia in 1991 were demonstrated to be those of the Tsar Nicholas II (Gill et al. 1994, Ivanov et al. 1996) (D.N.A. Box 10.2). The claims of Anna Anderson Manahan as the Russian princess Anastasia were proven false (Stoneking et al. 1995). The remains of the outlaw Jesse James were linked to living relatives putting to rest a myth that he had somehow escaped death at the hands of Robert Ford (Stone et al. 2001).
D.N.A. Box 10.1 Identifying remains from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
On 30 June 1998, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen announced to the world that DNA technology had been used to identify the Vietnam Unknown in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier located in Arlington National Cemetery. The remains of First Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie, United States Air Force, were identified through the use of mitochondrial DNA. An exact match across 610 nucleotides of the polymorphic mtDNA control region was obtained between Jean Blassie, Michael's mother, and a sample extracted from the bone fragments removed from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At the same time, eight other possible soldiers were excluded because family reference samples did not match.
Michael Blassie was an Air Force Academy graduate and the oldest of five children who grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. Lieutenant Blassie arrived in Vietnam in January 1972 and was flying his 132nd mission when his A-37B attack jet was shot down on 11 May 1972, outside An Loc, a hotly contested South Vietnamese village near the Cambodian border. Intense fighting in the area prevented the site from being searched and his remains were not recovered until almost five months later. By this time only four ribs, the right humerus and part of the pelvis remained along with some personal items, including Blassie's identification card. The remains were sent to the Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii where they remained for eight years designated as 'believed to be Michael Blassie.' In 1980, a military review board changed the designation on the remains to 'unknown' and the identification card found with the body had vanished.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was first opened in 1921 to honor soldiers who had died in World War I. On the tomb are inscribed the words 'Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.' Within this hallowed ground lie four servicemen, the unknown soldiers of World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. These unknown soldiers are guarded 24 hours a day at Arlington National Cemetery by a sentinel from the 3rd U.S. Infantry. The World War II and Korean War unknowns were selected from about 8500 and 800 unidentifiable remains, respectively, and were entombed on Memorial Day 1958. The Vietnam War casualty was authorized in 1973 for enshrinement, but it was not filled for 11 more years. To honor a Vietnam veteran on Memorial Day 1984 one of the few available unknown remains was selected for enshrinement and honored in a ceremony lead by President Ronald Reagan. There the remains of the Vietnam Unknown lay until 14 May 1998, when they were disinterred in a solemn ceremony and transported to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology for investigation. So sacred is the tomb and the memory of the soldiers resting there, that it has only been opened four times: in 1921 for WW I, in 1958 for WW II and Korean, in 1984 for Vietnam, and in 1998 to remove the Vietnam remains for DNA testing.
Throughout the month of June 1998, mtDNA sequence information was recovered from the skeletal material (pelvis) and analyzed by scientists at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (AFDIL) located in Rockville, Maryland. Maternal relatives from eight possible American casualties near An Loc were also evaluated as family reference samples. The mtDNA sequence content from positions 16024 to 16365 (HVI) and positions 73-340 (HVII) on the polymorphic control region were evaluated. Only a complete match was observed between Jean Blassie (Michael's mother) and the skeletal remains disinterred from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Because of this positive identification, the Blassies were permitted to bury Lieutenant Blassie's remains at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery located in St. Louis, Missouri. This ceremony was conducted on 11 July 1998, and brought closure to the Blassie family.
Holland, M.M. and Parsons, T.J. (1999) Forensic Science Review, 11, 21-50.
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