Dr. Sheree Hughes-Stamm works with bone fragments from the wreck of the HMS Pandora.
Dr. Sheree Hughes-Stamm analyzed teeth and small bone fragments from three victims of the 1791 shipwreck of the HMS Pandora, which was on a mission to retrieve mutineers from Captain William Bligh’s HMS Bounty when it sank off the coast of Australia. Using DNA-typing, she discovered that a bone from one victim had been mislabeled in a museum display when it actually belonged to another.
The teeth and bone fragments from Tom, Dick and Harry.Dr. Hughes-Stamm also was trialling a new technique to extract DNA from teeth – one which preserves the integrity of its structure. To get to the core of the tooth which contains the most intact DNA, many scientists were cutting across the crown or removing the entire root structure, destroying the ability to use the tooth to provide additional clues for identification. The technique that Dr. Hughes-Stamm used went in through the root, leaving the structure intact.
“We needed to find a better and less-invasive way to get good quality DNA samples from teeth,” said Dr. Hughes-Stamm, who recently made a presentation on her research to the Society of Forensic Science at Sam Houston State University. “Historically, we destroyed the teeth by drilling holes in them or cutting them in half. But the architecture of teeth are important for study, and you can’t destroy ancient samples on loan from a museum.”
The HMS Pandora.The HMS Pandora is steeped in history. A 24-gun frigate, the ship was sent by England to Tahiti to capture mutineers from the HMS Bounty, a ship that was sent to the West Indies to collect plants for crops. After the “Mutiny on the Bounty” revolt, some mutineers settled in Tahiti. Fourteen were captured and were being shipped back aboard the HMS Pandora when it sank in the Great Barrier Reef. Thirty-one members of the crew and four prisoners perished.
Dr. Hughes-Stamm is the newest member of the Department of Forensic Science at Sam Houston State University. A Ph.D. graduate of Bond University in Australia, her work bridges the disciplines of forensic anthropology and genetics, with a particular interest in the study of degraded DNA samples from mass disasters. She is pursuing research on finding new ways to preserve or repair DNA samples for analysis.
Dr. Hughes-Stamm cuts a bone in the lab.Dr. Hughes-Stamm still has small samples from “Tom, Dick and Harry,” the nicknames given to the first three victims retrieved from the shipwreck site. Only 20 percent of the site has been salvaged and over 200 bones and bone fragments have been retrieved. Even 200 years later, these bones may yield clues to the identity of the victims, and a project is underway to use DNA markers on the Y-chromosome to trace male descendants of the victims.
In addition to her work on the HMS Pandora project, Dr. Hughes-Stamm also traveled to Croatia and Bosnia to observe the work of the International Commission for Missing Persons on mass graves from wars in those countries. The process to identify the bodies has been going for 15 to 20 years because the remains have been reburied at several sites across the country to avoid detection. DNA samples are helping to solve the mysteries of those victims as well.
One of Dr. Hughes Stamm's experiments involved burying bones to measure the impact on DNA markers.Dr. Hughes-Stamm said her interest in mass graves grew out of a workshop she attended in Washington D.C., just three months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. After that tragedy – as well as the Bali bombings and the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami in Indonesia – she decided to explore degraded DNA samples for her doctoral dissertation.
She also worked on a National Institute of Justice grant to develop a panel of genetic markers which could predict various phenotypes based on a DNA sample. This tool may then be used to determine the ancestry, eye, skin and hair color of a missing person or an unknown perpetrator who had left biological evidence at a crime scene. She also has done work on how water, heat, and surface or submerged burials affect the success of DNA typing in bone samples
Dr. Hughes-Stamm hopes to advance the research in genetics and forensic science at Sam Houston State University, using the DNA expertise available in the Department of Forensic Science and forensic anthropology studies at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility.