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Soleil Young '17 BA (Anth) makes discovery at the Smithsonian

August 16, 2017 | Kathleen Haley

Soleil Young insideIn a collection of historic skeletal remains at the Smithsonian, microscopic signs of a serious contagion lurk in an intriguing place in a sample of individuals from 100 years ago.

Student researcher Soleil Young ’17, a member of the Renée Crown University Honors Program, discovered tuberculosis DNA in the tartar on the teeth of individuals in a collection specifically for biological research in the Smithsonian’s Division of Physical Anthropology.

DNA of the bacterial disease had never been isolated from teeth plaque—until now.

Young’s research was for her honors capstone project: “Please Forget to Floss: Developing an Assay for Identifying Tuberculosis in Dental Calculus from the Smithsonian’s Huntington Collection (1893-1921).”

Her research topic developed as a way to combine her background and interests in anthropology and biology.

“Dr. [Shannon] Novak suggested ancient DNA (aDNA) as a potential project, as she knew my love of bacteria and background in molecular biology,” says Young, who graduated with bachelor’s degrees from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. “We kind of just stumbled onto tuberculosis, as it was one of the few things we could work on without concerns of serious modern contamination. Since it had never been isolated from ancient dental calculus before, Dr. Novak suggested we try.”

Young was able to work with a graduate student in Novak’s lab, Alanna Warner-Smith, who is studying the Huntington Collection for her dissertation. The skeletal collection assembled by Dr. George Sumner Huntington is composed of individuals who died in New York City between 1893 and 1921.

“Because Alanna had already surveyed the collection, we had information on which individuals had calculus and their causes of death, allowing us to refine our sampling request,” Young says.

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