DNA work on bears led to method to identify unknown soldiers
Odile Loreille is something of a legend among DNA researchers looking for lost soldiers.
She started out as a brilliant scientist who wanted to take on a challenge. But in the ten years she spent trying to name the unknown soldiers buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific – the Punchbowl, on the island of Oahu, it has become personal: although they are from the family. Once you know their stories, you never get them out of your head.
Odile was a happy native of France for her first 35 years. She married a nice Dutchman, gave birth, read everything she could find about Neanderthals, our ancient cousins.
Science sometimes draws enthusiasts down winding paths. As a young scientist, she was captivated by the work of Svante Paabo, the Swedish geneticist who founded paleo-genetics and obtained the remains of ancient Neanderthals and ancient Homo Sapiens to reveal historical secrets – to what they looked, for example, down to the probable colors of their skin and hair. “I also wanted to study Neanderthals.”
She does not have. But she did something semi-related: breakthrough work in which she amplified the DNA signatures of a giant creature that terrified and captivated these ancient humans – cave bears. The cave bears were 11.5 feet tall, weighed 1,300 pounds, and became extinct tens of thousands of years ago. But from their (seriously degraded) DNA she found out a lot about what they looked like, how they lived, how they relate to the much smaller brown bears of today.
His parents were disappointed. “Who studies cave bears?”But when she went looking for a job in 2004, the Americans at the Armed Forces DNA Identification Lab caught her.
These Americans faced a horrendous problem: They wanted to identify more than 800 remains of Korean War soldiers who had been buried in the Punchbowl. But they had discovered that American anthropologists had treated these bones with a preservative shortly after our enemies in the Korean War gave them to us after the war. In 1954, they had soaked them in vats of formaldehyde. No one in 1954 knew what DNA was, but later anthropologists found that the curator had destroyed most of the DNA signatures in these bones.
This discovery has eaten away DNA researchers for years. Tim McMahon, who would ultimately run the chief DNA lab, had met some of the families of the lost men he was looking for. âListening to their loss, it is clear that everything is like yesterday for them, no matter how many years have passed. It is heartbreaking. “
It was a problem that French scientist Odile Loreille was ideally trained to solve.
A cave bear whose DNA she obtained had been dead (and decaying) for over 100,000 years. American DNA scientists, then based in Rockville, Md., Loved this: If she could get usable DNA from a 1,000-century-old bear, maybe she could get DNA. usable from unknowns Punchbowl.
Americans were frustrated, perhaps desperate. âWhen I got there I suspected that most of them thought the problem probably couldn’t be fixed,â said Odile.
âSolving the Punchbowl,â they said – his real job description.
Describing how she did it would take a book in which almost every sentence is incomprehensible to anyone except DNA obsessives. We will just say here that she tried and failed to extract DNA of the stranger, but I figured out how amplify their DNA.
She worked ten years. It has become not only personal but specific, no longer theoretical.
In 2008 she tested her DNA creations on an unknown Punchbowl.
The lab took her to Honolulu. She went up to the Punchbowl one day with a dig team.
They unearthed Coffin 14891, containing the bones of a man that Chinese soldiers in 1954 had unearthed from Camp Five prison, Pyoktong village, North Korea.
âI was there,â says Odile. “I literally told them which bone samples to cut.”
It would be years before she and other scientists perfected all of the protocols the lab now uses.
But from those cuts made in the bones of coffin 14891 in 2008, she successfully sequenced endogenous DNA; no one had done this before. And she found out who was 14891.
Cpl. Roy Stewart, 26 at the time of death, was an African-American soldier from Jackson, Mississippi, who fought in Korea with the US Army’s 9th Infantry Regiment and was captured by North Korean soldiers in November 1950 ; he died four months later at Camp Five. Thanks to Odile, he finally returned to his family.
His sister buried him in Arlington National Cemetery. Odile came to the funeral. “Roy was my Emil Kapaun.”
It’s not easy to contact Odile these days. Phil O’Brien, a Pentagon analyst (and Father Kapaun’s researcher who has known her for years), says she is delightful, bright, and loves to talk about European art genres. And that she now works as a DNA scientist for the FBI. She loves Phil too. âPhil is a genius,â she said. “I miss him.”
She enjoys her job at the FBI, which is a secret. âI don’t have the right to say a word about what I’m doing now. But I will say that as a Frenchwoman, I would have laughed if someone had said that I would one day work for the FBI.
She then helped a 4000-year-old Egyptian royal mummy unravel some DNA secrets. She helped identify by DNA two of the Russian Romanov children – murdered by the Soviets when they shot the royal family down by firing squad in 1918. She says her work is fulfilling.
But the most profound achievement of his career was spending ten years of his life helping solve the problem at Punchbowl.
“She laid the groundwork,” said DNA scientist Tim McMahon, who heads the armed forces DNA identification lab in Dover, Delaware. “After her, the rest of the team leaned on what she did.”
Thanks to her (and former giant cave bears), Father Emil Kapaun’s family – and hundreds of other families – would have a second chance to bring home a lost loved one.