Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Testing a tooth

While John Lennon was singing "I Feel Fine" in 1966, he probably wasn't. It was about then (sometime between 1964 and 1968) that a toothache brought him to the dentist for an extraction. Later that day, he was chatting with his housekeeper "Dot" in the kitchen of his Kenwood home in Weybridge, Surrey, U.K. "John gave my mother the tooth and suggested giving it to my sister as a souvenir, as she was a huge Beatles fan," said Dorothy's son Barry Jarlett, now age 90. The offending molar (pictured above, another photo here) has spent most of the past 40 years in Canada with Barry's sister. This anatomical item of music memorabilia was auctioned on Nov. 5th by Omega Auctions, and had been expected to fetch upwards of £10,000 ($16,000). The provenance of the tooth is not in question, but the desire to own it was thought to be. "We get a lot of people buying memorabilia as investments. Or it could just be a fan that really, really wants a part of John Lennon," says the owner of the auction house Karen Fairweather. Well, the tooth found its rightful heir in the form of Canadian dentist Michael Zuk, who placed the winning bid of $30,461 (£19,500) by phone. Zuk has written a book on celebrity teeth and said, "Once I heard it was up for sale I had to have it." He plans to display the tooth in his surgery, but will bring it with him when he travels to other dental surgeries and dental schools. "Some people will think its gross, others will be fascinated by it."

According to Fairweather's press release, the tooth is too fragile to conduct a DNA test. This struck me as odd, since DNA has been extracted from teeth that are far older (180, 660, 4,000, 18,000, even 50,000 years) and presumably just as delicate. Having recently made the acquaintance of British chemist Stephen Buckley (see this post, which I have updated), I asked his opinion, which he was kind enough to provide. He agreed that the tooth is not too old for the successful recovery of DNA, and explained that teeth are almost as good a source as hair. But to ensure that the DNA is from the tooth itself and not contamination, its extraction would cause significant damage to the specimen, which Buckley believes is the main concern of the auction house. He summarizes, "The age of the tooth stored in reasonable conditions should mean recovering DNA, if damage was considered worthwhile, should certainly be possible." Though teeth aren't perfect, the context of this one would likely make it "good enough." In his e-mail, Buckley suggests that DNA analysis is not the infallible magic bullet it is often seen as. The remains of soldiers recovered from Vietnam have yielded only mitochondrial DNA, because the tropical climate destroyed any nuclear DNA in just a few decades. The DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies suffers from the degradation that has occurred since death and the contamination introduced by those who have handled the remains over the centuries. With these reservations, Buckley concludes, "Lennon's DNA should be straightforward in scientific terms." But since the new owner of the tooth is a dentist, the point is probably moot.

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