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

(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."

Skeleton images of the Elephant Man.
Skeleton images of the Elephant Man.   (Queen Mary University of London)
Joseph Merrick, commonly known as the Elephant Man.
Joseph Merrick, commonly known as the Elephant Man.   (Wikipedia Commons)
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