Life and Death

Throughout history man has always looked for that way to cheat death and leave a legacy that would span the test of time. They built the pyramids, the Taj Mahal, the Thirteen Tombs of the Ming Dynasty, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina all in the hope of leaving something that would leave a legacy and preserve their memory. There is a need to preserve ones legacy that drives people to do amazing and sometimes outrageous things.

What is a person’s legacy? Is it their accomplishments in life? Is it how many material things they have accumulated or how much money they have in the bank? Is it how many people they have touched in their life? There is no right answer as this question comes down to who a person really was. What made them great? What made them unique?

Everyone’s story is different. Why are we different? The answer is in our DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is the hereditary material in humans and all other organisms. Nearly every cell in a person’s body has the same DNA. Most DNA is located in the cell nucleus (where it is called nuclear DNA), but a small amount of DNA can also be found in the mitochondria (where it is called mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA). The information in DNA is stored as a code made up of four chemical bases: adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T). Human DNA consists of about 3 billion bases, and more than 99 percent of those bases are the same in all people. The order, or sequence, of these bases determines the information available for building and maintaining an organism, similar to the way in which letters of the alphabet appear in a certain order to form words and sentences. In such a way everyone’s story is written differently.

As research unravels the code more and more we realise that who we are, how we act and what we like all has a genetic component. Several studies of identical twins separated at birth (identical twins have identical genetic code) and raised in completely different environments show some startling results. These twins all had the same favorite foods, choose mates that were very similar, gravitated to the same careers, watched the same TV programs and in some cases both ended up in prison for identical crimes. This happened in very different circumstances and varying cultural situations which there was no other explanation for.

DNA is basically a blueprint or set of instructions that contain all the critical elements which makes a person who they are. This set of instructions is in every cell of the body except for the sexual gametes of sperm and eggs which have half the genetic compliment and need to combine to make a whole genome and a new person. We age and die over time as this blueprint begins to accumulate errors in the code. The code is based on sequences of ATCG in certain orders. Over time mutations or mistakes accumulate in the code from various things from smoking to sun exposure. For example let’s say the code read “Make healthy heart cells” as we age it begins to accumulate errors “mdke healthy herrt cells”. The body can still make sense of that so the problem doesn’t show but as more errors accumulate “ddke berrt healthy cdlls” the code no longer makes sense and the system breaks down. Now the person dies from heart disease.

Well depending on when that person had children they may have inherited the code “mdke healthy herrt cells” from a parent which still is has not shown any heart disease but is only a few mutations away from a person from getting heart disease and dying.

That is why that person who has already has these mutations in their DNA inherited from their parents can live a normal life if they know that they must avoid things which will cause or accelerate the heart disease problem. If they don’t, they may lead a relatively normal and healthy life style but get heart disease and die because it only will take a few mutations to make the code unreadable by the body.

These mutations usually take several generations for the errors to accumulate to a degree where there is a major problem, as these codes can be hundreds to thousands of letters long. The “make healthy heart cells” was used as a demonstration to get my point across. It’s more complicated than that but the point is valid.

This is why having a genetic record that spans generations is so important. Measuring mutation rates over generations can predict diseases before they happen. We now live in an age where a woman can be screened for breast cancer in their teens and be treated as soon as the cancer appears. Imagine the lives and suffering that could be saved and alleviated if people knew which diseases they were going to possibly get before they got them. The money that the health system could save if you knew beforehand which diseases you were going to get before you got them. From the twentieth century plague of cancer to Alzheimer’s disease to the thousands of other genetic diseases you could get. Taking proactive steps to reduce your risk and catching the disease in its early stages would save millions of lives and billions of dollars.

The question becomes well if there are so many benefits to this why isn’t everybody doing this? The simple answer is that people were not ready. In the past the general public didn’t really even understand what DNA was. Actually scientists didn’t even understand the potential till fairly recently. DNA analysis was only invented in 1986 with the creation of the PCR reaction (Polymerase Chain Reaction). This allows the copying of DNA into billions of identical copies that can be detected and analysed by instrument’s because the DNA is so tiny. This was accomplished when a person found a bacteria living in a hot spring. To separate the DNA strands they need to be heated to 94 Degrees Celsius. This temperature destroys or denatures any enzymes or copying mechanisms we had before that. These bacteria which lived in temperatures of almost boiling water had enzymes which could withstand the heat and copy the DNA.

In the mid ninety’s DNA was first used in criminal cases in Britain then spread throughout the world as law enforcement realised the potential. Since then it’s been an exponential explosion of DNA information. The possibility of ancestral and family tree linage has become very popular with the general public. Using specific DNA markers can trace ancestry thousands of years back. More recently, some DNA markers have been used to link persons to individuals as far back as 5000 years ago (Breakthrough DNA study links B.C. woman, 5,500-year-old “grandmother” By Randy Boswell, Postmedia News July 5, 2013). There are also specific DNA types that have interesting applications for ancestry and heritage research including STR (short tandem repeats) mtDNA, Y DNA and some rare DNA mutations.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is contained in the cytoplasm of the cell, rather than the nucleus. This type of DNA is passed by a mother to both male and female offspring without any mixing, so your mtDNA is the same as your mother’s mtDNA, which is the same as her mother’s mtDNA. mtDNA changes very slowly so it cannot determine close relationships as well as it can determine general relatedness. If two people have an exact match in their mtDNA, then there is a very good chance they share a common maternal ancestor, but it is hard to determine if this is a recent ancestor or one who lived hundreds of years ago. It is important to keep in mind with this test that a male’s mtDNA comes only from his mother and is not passed on to his offspring.

The DNA tests that identified the bodies of the Romanovs, the Russian imperial family, utilized mtDNA from a sample provided by Prince Philip, who shares the same maternal line from Queen Victoria. Y chromosomal DNA – More recently, the Y chromosome in the nuclear DNA is being used to establish family ties. The Y chromosomal DNA test (usually referred to as Y DNA or Y-Line DNA) is only available for males, since the Y chromosome is only passed down the male line from father to son. Tiny chemical markers on the Y chromosome create a distinctive pattern, known as a haplotype that distinguishes one male lineage from another. Shared markers can indicate relatedness between two men, though not the exact degree of the relationship. Y chromosome testing is most often used by individuals with the same last name to learn if they share a common ancestor.

The DNA tests supporting the probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered the last child of Sally Hemming’s were based on Y-chromosome DNA samples from male descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s paternal uncle, since there were no surviving male descendants from Jefferson’s marriage. Markers on both mtDNA and Y chromosome tests can also be used to determine an individual’s haplogroup, a grouping of individuals with the same genetic characteristics. This test may provide you with interesting information about the deep ancestral lineage of your paternal and/or maternal lines As more ancestral markers are identified, DNA ancestry testing will become much more powerful than it is today. By keeping a record of your family’s DNA, you are opening new doors and creating exciting new opportunities that were never available before.

Jump to today. DNA is a household mainstream topic which people hear and see every day. Magazines like Time, People and even the National Enquirer have a daily story about DNA. The hottest TV shows are all about DNA like CSI or Forensic Files. Even companies like Nike and Coke run ads with DNA incorporated into their pitches. Saving a person’s DNA has many advantages and the death care sector is the logical place for this service to be offered. No one likes to thinks about a loved one passing away. Therefore in the vast majority of cases no one has even thought about saving their family’s DNA. The funeral providers are the last chance to save this invaluable information that someone’s DNA holds.

By saving A persons DNA it preserves everything about that person. It immortalises them by saving their blueprint and everything that made them unique. Not everyone can build a pyramid or monument to last the test of time but everyone can cheat death a little and leave a lasting legacy by saving their genetic code. There may be truly life after death when you save your DNA. FBA


Ryan Lehto is an expert in DNA specializing in storage and recovery of highly degraded samples.  He is an accredited forensic DNA expert who has worked for multiple law enforcement agencies across North America. In addition he has been involved in many international research projects such as the identification of the Titanic baby as well as the identification of Canadian WW2 soldiers of Vimy Ridge. Ryan continues to break ground in the genetics field as one of the founders of DNA Memorial.

By | 2016-11-15T19:41:33+00:00 January 27th, 2014|Leadership|Comments Off on Life and Death

About the Author: