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Thunder Bay DNA lab involved in Amelia Earhart investigation

A Thunder Bay forensic DNA lab was thrust in the national spotlight for its participation in the search for famed aviator Amelia Earhart.
Molecular World scientist Arlene Lahti prepares a DNA sample for profiling.

A Thunder Bay forensic DNA lab was thrust in the national spotlight for its participation in the search for famed aviator Amelia Earhart.

Molecular World has been working with samples recovered from a South Pacific Island by Richard Gillespie of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) based in Delaware.

For two years, the lab has tested samples to extract DNA from glass and makeup found on Nikumaroro Island, 3,000 kilometres south of Hawaii. Gilllespie believes it could offer clues toward solving one of the biggest mysteries of the 20th century.

Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean in July 1937 in an attempt fly around the world.

The tests performed in Thunder Bay were inconclusive because the DNA from the samples were contaminated during collection.

“If you went into your garden and picked up some dirt, that's what the samples looked like,” said Curtis Hildebrandt, a Molecular World analyst and reporting officer.

The samples were submitted to various chemical washes which break down biological material while other chemicals specifically target and pull out the DNA for analysis.

Hildebrandt said there is a possibility more samples may arrive from the Gillespie group when they mount another expedition in 2010. For next time, the company offered some tips to the TIGHAR group on how to handle and store clean samples for the future.

Since its establishment in 2003, Molecular World has gained a stellar reputation for its work on cold cases and identifying the remains of war dead.

The news of Molecular World's involvement was first revealed by Gillespie in July 29 interview with a Toronto newspaper.

Hildebrandt said his company does not disclose who their clients are unless they are requested to do so.

The company specializes in DNA extraction and amplification of samples from one and hair. The six-person company has gained national attention in handling evidence in many high-profile legal cases as well as identifying human remains from the Titanic disaster and ancient Egypt. They also perform familial testing (paternity, maternity) for civil, legal and immigration cases.

Molecular World was purchased this summer by Warnex Inc. of Montreal, a life sciences company which has been involved in DNA identification and analytical services for the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry for many years.

“We were very impressed by their technology and ability,” said Warnex President and CEO Mark Busgang, “so it's a good fit for us and part of our goal of expanding into the overall DNA testing market.”

Busgang said the Thunder Bay lab is “well recognized and accredited by the RCMP with outstanding facilities and we thought this is a great opportunity to add value with our marketing and sales, “ which Molecular World was lacking with their scientific team.

Molecular World's name will be changed to Warnex Pro-DNA.

Toronto media reports mentioned Thunder Bay's Genesis Genomics, a biotech company specializing in early cancer detection kits, was also involved in the investigation.

Company president Robert Poulter offered no comment saying only that their leading scientific officer, Dr. Ryan Parr, offered the Gillespie team some “preliminary advice.”

Poulter said their lab didn't performed any work for TIGHAR but referred them to other organizations.

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