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THE NATION

Effects of Radiation on DNA Studied in Civil War Sub Tests

July 07, 2002|From Associated Press

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley may not yet have outlived its military usefulness.

Experts studying bioterrorism and weapons of mass destruction are using experiments conducted with the Civil War sub, which sank with its nine-man crew in 1864, to gauge potential effects of radiation on DNA.

"As with all great science, it's usually an accident that something comes along," said Dr. Jamie Downs, Alabama's chief medical examiner and a member of the Hunley's forensic science team. "You don't always get exactly what you're searching for, but there are often unintended benefits."

After the Hunley was raised off the South Carolina coast nearly two years ago, scientists studied whether its hull could be X-rayed without damaging DNA of the entombed crew.

"There was no way we could use the Hunley as a guinea pig, so real research was needed before we could decide to use X- or gamma rays on the sub and its contents," said Paul Mardikian, the senior conservator on the Hunley project.

Researchers tested remains donated to science with both kinds of ionizing radiation and found there was no appreciable DNA deterioration.

Though the results offered little help to the Hunley--X-rays were hindered by the sub's iron hull, and gamma rays had trouble penetrating the wet sand inside--the research served another purpose.

Downs presented it to the Mass Fatality Management Partnership, a group of federal, state and local officials working on information related to weapons of mass destruction, and to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The partnership is coordinated through the Army's Soldier and Biological Chemical Command.

The experiments' results might help protect researchers handling bodies infected with lethal anthrax. The research could also protect health-care workers, emergency personnel and others who might come near infected tissue, Downs said.

The Hunley's interior remained a mystery until it was opened late last year.

Still, Downs said the research answered any doubts about the wisdom of spending time and money examining the Hunley, which went down after sinking the Union blockade ship Houstanonic.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration "is the perfect example," Downs said. "If they hadn't gone to the moon, we wouldn't have desktop computers right now."

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