UPPSALA UNIVERSITY, SWEDEN
Dr. Neils Andersson stared into the microscope and watched for enzymatic changes as the pipette dripped the clear solution onto the slide below. He sighed to himself as sleet beat against the window announcing the next winter storm to slicken the university campus and forming an icy cap to the foot of snow already blanketing the grounds.
Rubbing at his neck, he pushed back from the workbench and made his notes in the lab book and tossed his glasses aside. He rubbed at his tired eyes and ran his hand through his thick blonde hair, then stretched his shoulders to regain some circulation into his upper body. Standing slowly, he stepped to the window to watch the grey black clouds that hung pregnant over the horizon dump their icy moisture onto the grounds below. Most of the students had already scampered indoors or had refused to venture out due to the weather and he couldn’t blame them. Most of their professors had cancelled classes because of the winter storm.
He turned back to stare at the upcoming tests he had waiting and sighed once more…science never waited for those who searched for answers. Picking up his cooled mug of tea, he sat back at his station and prepared his next experiment. Working with Neanderthal DNA wasn’t exactly the sort of science that could make one a rock star in his field, but he enjoyed it, and the answers he hoped to find would satisfy his own curiosity and that of his peers. What happened to these people? How did they disappear when they had the obvious advantages? They were stronger, more adept to their environment, they were skilled hunters and had rudimentary tools. It was obvious that they weren’t killed off by early modern man. So what happened?
Neils prepared his next sample and settled in to wait. He was becoming worried that the samples were tainted. Mitochondrial DNA shouldn’t ALL be the same, but these samples were coming up that way, which made him fear that somehow they had been tainted by the collectors. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from the mother to child only in all mammals. Yet somehow, all of the samples were coming up the same. And with no variations in the samples at all, he could only draw one conclusion…
Neils prepared the next batch for replication and reheated his tea for the third…fourth time? He shrugged at the thought and smiled to himself. What difference did it make? Tea was tea. As long as it was warm on a day like today, that was what mattered.
He took his seat and waited for the timer to sound when his computer chimed. Neils rolled his chair over and clicked the enter button to awaken the machine and saw the video conference icon flashing. Clicking it, the screen lit up and he saw the concerned face of a respected colleague, Dr. Vivian LaRue, who had been studying the caves of Nerja in southern Spain.
“Vivian, so nice to see you again,” he said, smiling.
“Neils.” She didn’t smile in return, and her eyes kept scanning something off screen, “I keep finding something odd in this DNA profiling. I thought I’d double-check with you since you’re the expert.”
Neils nodded and leaned closer, noting how he appeared in the little window in the corner of his own screen. “Anything I can do to help.”
“We’ve run these mitochondrial samples four times…” she began. Neils sighed, nodding. “They all return with disturbing results.” She finally looked up to meet his eyes on the screen.
“I’m running into the same thing here, Vivian,” Neils replied. “I can assure you, the procedure is valid. We’ve been using it for decades.”
She studied his image for a moment then glanced off-screen and lowered her voice, “I would offer that perhaps the DNA was compromised by whomever collected it…”
Neils could tell by the sound of her voice that she had more to say. “But?”
“Neils, I collected it myself,” she answered quietly. “I know I used proper protocols.”
Neils sat back and considered the possibilities. “That only leaves two possibilities.”
“Which are?” Her eyes widened with curiosity.
“Well, it’s simple really.” He tossed his hands up. “If you used proper protocols, then the results are valid and you have the correct DNA profiles.”
“Or somebody tampered with the reagents.”
Vivian sat back and studied his image for a moment, her jaw quivering. “We should meet.”
“I agree,” he lowered his voice as well, “because I’ve run the same test on a different group of ‘tals and I’ve gotten the same results.”
This time her eyes bugged as she sat forward. “You what?” She paused a moment to collect her thoughts. “That isn’t possible.”
He inhaled deeply and nodded, “I’m afraid it is.” He held up a printout of his results. “I printed it out and compared them just to make sure, and it is spot on identical.”
“Neils…that isn’t…” her eyes darted to the side.
“Not even with inbreeding to the nth degree it isn’t.”
“So what does it all mean?” Her eyes probed his displayed image. “I simply couldn’t dream that anybody would want to conspire to—”
“No,” Neils interrupted, “I’m not going to go that far.” He stood up and paced, not caring that he was walking in and out of the frame of the video conference. “But I might go so far as to think that perhaps the manufacturer of the reagents had a bad batch of chemicals.”
Vivian sat back and considered the possibility. “I suppose.” But she shook her head again, “But they’re so basic, Neils, how could it slip past—”
“I’m just playing Devil’s Advocate, that’s all.”
“Fine. Where do you get yours?”
He paused, looked at her, and shrugged. “I’m not…um…hold on.” He walked over to the workbench and pulled down the reagent box. “They’re from Germany. A research laboratory—”
“Ours come from France,” she interrupted him. “So what are the odds?”
He plopped back into his chair and stared at her image. “Where do you want to meet?”
“Somewhere warmer than where you’re at?” She finally smiled at him.
“Vivian, we’ve run the test four times. It always comes back the same.” Neils sighed and pushed his glasses up on his head. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
“It isn’t possible that two separate groups of Neanderthals from two different regions would share the same mitochondrial DNA.”
“I’m not disagreeing.” He wanted to pace to allow himself to think better. “But the science says otherwise.”
“Then the science is wrong!” She slammed the notebook down. “Science is often wrong until it’s…”
“What?” Neils asked, his brows raised.
“Well, until it’s right.”
Neils chuckled and set his own notes down. “Trust me, Viv, I understand your frustration.” He stood and rubbed at her shoulders. “But yelling and throwing things won’t change the results.”
“What are we doing wrong?” she groaned as she stretched her neck under his artful hands.
He shook his head. “Nothing.” He exhaled long and hard. “It simply is what it is.” He continued to knead at her stiff muscles as his mind kept working over the results.
A technician entered with another batch of replicated DNA and placed the vials on the bench. “It’s ready doctors,” he said, setting the vials down. As he turned to leave, he stifled a rather loud sneeze into his sleeve then turned abruptly to the two researchers. “Pardon, nasty virus going around.”
Neils simply raised a hand and waved him on. The technician gave a quick apologetic nod of his head and stepped out. Neils chuckled, “Please remind me to use a hand-sanitizer after we strip these gloves. I wouldn’t want to catch this…” he trailed off.
“What?” Vivian turned a curious eye to him. “The bug going around the clinic here?”
Neils sat down hard in his chair and stared at her, a silly grin forming on his features. “Virus.”
“Yes?” she replied. “I believe that’s what he said.”
“No,” he laughed. “A virus! ” He slapped at his leg.
“I’m not following you.” Vivian was lost as Neils began fumbling through his research papers.
“We were looking for the wrong thing…” He pulled up the printout he had brought from his original sampling and pushed his roller chair over to Vivian’s research material. He scattered the papers until he found the printout from her own. “Ah-ha! ”
“I’m still not following you, Neils.” Her voice was hesitant.
“It was a virus! ” he giggled. “This whole time we thought we were mapping mitochondrial DNA, but it wasn’t. That’s the only thing that can explain it.”
“No, that’s not possible, Neils. A virus isn’t that complex.” She pulled her glasses back on.
Neils placed both print outs up to the light box and clicked it on. “Look. If it’s the same virus and it replicates itself, then it overwrites the hosts DNA. We know this, correct?”
“Well, yes, technically, a virus enters a cell and uses the cell’s materials to replicate itself, but, we are mapping mitochondrial DNA, not cellular DNA, so…”
“But what if this virus targets mitochondrial DNA?” His voice rising as he posed the question.
She sat back and stared at him. “I’m no virologist, but I’ve not heard of such a bug.”
“I’ve not either, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.” He smiled at her. “And who’s to say what virus strains existed in the Paleolithic period?” He tapped the light box and indicated the repeating patterns. “Look at these patterns. They keep repeating over and over and over. Doesn’t that seem more than just a little off?”
“Well…yes,” she finally admitted. “But do you really think we’re mapping a disease?”
He sat back and chuckled again. “It would explain why two different groups from two different regions ALL share the same DNA when it should be lineal, don’t you think?”
Vivian sighed as she stared at the light box and the repeating patterns. “So, despite having ruined samples, and no way to discern lineage, or good working samples, or ways to discern familial types…”
“We may have discovered what really killed off Neanderthal man,” Neils theorized.
* * * * *
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