Hunley Scientists Help in America's War Against Terrorism

Hunley Scientists Help in America’s War Against Terrorism CHARLESTON, SC – July 5, 2002 - Scientists working on the H.L. Hunley have presented information gathered from early experiments with the submarine and the potential effects of ionizing radiation (x-rays and gamma rays) on DNA to a national group studying issues related to bioterrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The groundbreaking information may be helpful to scientists and specialists in helping fight the war on terrorism.

During the excavation on the Hunley there was an unknown but important question that the archaeologists needed answered: Would exposure to high dose radiation damage the ability to retrieve DNA from skeletal remains? To answer that question Senior Archaeologist Maria Jacobsen set up an experiment in the lab at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center along with Hunley consultant, Dr. Jamie Downs, Chief Medical Examiner for the State of Alabama. “Due to the mutagenic properties of ionizing radiation and the possible impact on the DNA of the crewmembers, 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 content,” said Paul Mardikian, Senior Conservator. (Mutagenic means an agent, as a radioactive element that causes biological mutation.)

Preliminary results have been encouraging and have led to additional experiments designed to see if higher doses of radiation can safely be used on human remains while preserving forensically useful DNA. Dr. Downs presented the research to the Mass Fatality Management Partnership (MFMP), a multi-jurisdictional group of various federal, state and local governmental officials working on information related to weapons of mass destruction fatality management issues. The MFMP is coordinated through the department of the Army, US Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command. Downs also presented the data to the annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, the professional body of the forensics community with more than 5,000 members in over 50 countries worldwide.

With the co-operation of ReliaGene, Sullivan & Associates, and Newco, Inc., the Hunley researchers were able to perform an initial series of experiments on the effect of irradiation on DNA. The studies showed that neither x-rays nor gamma-irradiation, in amounts typically employed in processing of skeletal remains, damages DNA for forensic identification purposes. The study showed radiation doses up to 7500 rads (75 Gray) could be used. Much higher radiation doses (up to 50,000 Gray) are used to sterilize mail from anthrax. In the second series of experiments, currently beginning, additional DNA samples will be analyzed using the higher radiation doses. If successful, this research might allow those handling bodies infected with lethal anthrax spores to sterilize the bodies prior to examination and thus decrease the risk to those processing the remains.

“This information may prove vital to protecting health care workers, scene responders, and others who might come into contact with infected tissues,” said Dr. Downs. “Once again, the Hunley is at the forefront of technology with her crew helping fight today’s war on bioterrorism some 138 years after they died in battle. I think this really illustrates the tremendous scientific value of the collaborations taking place on the project.”

The Warren Lasch Conservation Center is open for visitation on the weekends along with the gift shop so that the public can get a glimpse of the H. L. Hunley. All proceeds go to support the Hunley conservation project. To purchase tickets call toll free 1-866-866-9938 or log onto the Internet at

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