Elephant Man Mystery May Soon Be Solved
Bleached bones have posed a problem
By Arden Dier, Newser Staff
Posted Aug 30, 2013 12:14 PM CDT
Skeleton images of the Elephant Man.   (Queen Mary University of London)

(Newser) – For years, doctors have tried to conclusively determine which genetic mutations caused the lumpy skin, misshapen head, and other deformities that made Joseph Merrick the Elephant Man. Now researchers hope they'll finally be able to get a definitive answer. Though they could in theory extract DNA from Merrick's skeleton, there's a complication: "On a number of occasions over the years the skeleton has been bleached during the preservation process," says the custodian of the body. "Bleach is not a good chemical to expose DNA to."

That, plus researchers now think the bones were waxed, too, which may also have affected the DNA. But a team of British geneticists has been working on a technique that will allow it to get the genetic info it needs from bleached bone. The BBC explains the method: It "involves drilling out a small quantity of bone powder, treating it with detergents and enzymes to extract the protein, and then removing the DNA." The team has zeroed in on two parts of Merrick's skeleton—one normal, one not—to drill. The lead researcher tells the BBC he is "confident that we will be successful ... [in] sequencing his genome."

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Showing 3 of 30 comments
BiggusDikkus
Sep 1, 2013 12:07 PM CDT
I believe that John's particular case of death may turn out to be irreversible.
InferiorToYou
Aug 30, 2013 9:55 PM CDT
They want to sequence his entire genome?
HMD-SMD-ITY
Aug 30, 2013 5:56 PM CDT
If I remember right, in the movie, he's deformed because his mother was ran over by an elephant in Africa. I just remember it was a very dark movie. My sister drug me to those movies for some reason. Another one of the period was, "The Dresser." How depressing were those movies. When she finally left to live in Europe to "find herself", I couldn't even think of going to movies like that, such as Schindler's List or Sophie's Choice. Thankfully Mel Brooks came along and saved movies for me.