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Asking old human tissue to answer new scientific questions

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Pirates used to say that “dead men tell no tales.” Of course, the buccaneers had never heard of the polymerase chain reaction. Dead men turn out to be loaded with information if you can get your hands on them — or better yet, on small preserved pieces.

The genomics revolution, two decades old, has given biological researchers an astonishing array of tools, both physical and computational, to extract information from once-living tissue. Perhaps the most spectacular example was the discovery of enough remnant DNA in Neanderthal bones to allow scientists to conclude that those extinct hominids once interbred with modern humans.

But it turns out there is a lot of less exotic — and potentially more useful — research to be done on preserved tissue whose age is measured in decades, not millennia.

The best-known examples are the reconstruction of the infamous 1918 Spanish influenza virus from preserved lung tissue, and the discovery of the AIDS virus in blood serum from 1959 and a tissue sample from 1960. Several years ago, scientists used serum collected from airmen during the Korean War to understand the course of hepatitis C infection, a disease unknown at the time the samples were drawn.
 
 

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