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DNA tests to reveal secrets of the 'iceman'

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DNA tests to reveal secrets of the 'iceman'
Photo: DPA
11:54 CEST+02:00
German scientists are helping decode the genome of the 5,300-year-old Tyrolean “iceman” Ötzi, which could answer the tantalising question of whether he has living descendants, it was revealed this week.

Ötzi, found in 1991 by two German tourists in the Alps on the border of Italy and Austria, is Europe's oldest natural human mummy.

Examination of his mummified body has already yielded unprecedented insight into the life of Europeans in the “copper age.” Now, researchers at the European Academy of Bolzano and the University of Tübingen, together with bioinformatics experts in Heidelberg, hope his DNA will yield an ocean of new understanding.

They have extracted DNA from the bone of the iceman and used a gene sequencer to read the data. And while they are still interpreting that data, they expect to announce their results in 2011 – coinciding with the 20th anniversary of Ötzi's discovery.

Albert Zink, head of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy of Bolzano in northern Italy, said finding out whether the iceman has descendants – and if so, where they live – was just one of the many questions the team hoped to answer.

“I find it especially interesting to investigate the disease history of Ötzi,” he said.

If Ötzi shows signs of disease that are common today, such as diabetes, cancer or Alzheimer's disease, the information could be used to better understand the genetic triggers of these maladies, he said.

“With a little luck, maybe we can make a contribution to doing something about these diseases,” Zink said. “For me, that would be the bridge between researching the past and the present.”

Carsten Pusch from the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Tübingen said the team had read about 95 percent of the DNA. The other 5 percent contained no genes and could only be read very poorly with existing technology – a problem that always applies to reading human DNA.

Ötzi was about 46-years-old when he died. He had been struck by an arrow and then apparently bludgeoned to death.

His mummified corpse was found by German tourists Helmut and Erika Simon in 1991 in the Schnalstal glacier on the border between Austria and Italy.

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