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Ontario labs help revive hunt for Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart in an undated photo. (The Associated Press)

Anonymous

The decades-long mystery of the disappearance of American aviator Amelia Earhart might finally be solved next year with the help of two Thunder Bay labs.

Genesis Genomics and Molecular World have been working with Richard (Ric) Gillespie, who's spent the last 21 years on the hunt for the remains of the famous aviation pioneer.

Mr. Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery in Wilmington, Del., and his team will make their 10th trip to a Pacific Island 3,000 kilometres south of Hawaii next May, hoping to collect objects that may contain her DNA.

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During their $500,000 (U.S.) expedition, he said, they will gather evidence on Nikumaroro Island, formerly known as Gardner Island.

Some believe that is where Ms. Earhart was left stranded after her plane crashed as she tried to fly around the world with navigator Fred Noonan in 1937. Except from 1938 to 1963, the small island, dense with vegetation, has remained uninhabited.

Dr. Ryan Parr of Genesis Genomics, who joined the research team about five years ago and is an expert in historical DNA research, will test any evidence gathered for DNA back in Thunder Bay. Dr. Parr was unavailable for an interview.

During their last expedition to the island in 2007, Mr. Gillespie said they excavated a site believed to be a castaway's campsite found in 1940 by a British colonial administrator, who also found a partial skeleton there. The British misplaced the bones in 1941. But Mr. Gillespie believes they belonged to Ms. Earhart, and his quest is to prove it.

At the site, his team found a number of items, including old makeup, pieces from a woman's compact from the 1930s, and a zipper made between 1933 and 1936.

When he was cataloguing items, Mr. Gillespie said he came across a Ziploc bag with what looked like chunks of brown dirt that team members had collected, and he handled the contents. He said Dr. Parr tested it and said it contained human DNA, but wondered if it was DNA from Mr. Gillespie's team or from another source.

To help determine that, Mr. Gillespie said, they went to Molecular World, a company whose expertise in extracting old DNA keeps it in demand with not only police forces, but also with military investigators trying to identify the remains of soldiers found in Europe.

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"We did the tests. The tests unfortunately were inconclusive. So we couldn't tell him if they were a match or not. And what we were trying to match it to was DNA of a great-niece of Amelia Earhart's," said Mark Busgang, president and CEO of Warnex, the parent company of Molecular World, in an interview from Laval, Que.

"It's pretty neat. Whenever you're trying to solve a case, it's not the work per se that's exciting, but it's the stories behind it," said Molecular World analyst Curtis Hildebrandt, who carried out the DNA testing with a colleague.

One of Mr. Hildebrandt's previous cases involved determining the sex of a toddler who'd been on the Titanic and was buried in a Halifax cemetery, his identity unknown until earlier this decade. He said the Ms. Earhart case is a rare one for his lab.

"This in particular is super cool because obviously she's very famous and it's just such a mystery because people have combed so many different areas and searched for high and low," Mr. Hildebrandt said in an interview from Thunder Bay. "And to have the possibility to try to identify something and bring closure to the case in even the smallest capacity is very, very interesting."

What the test results did reveal this past spring was that Mr. Gillespie's own DNA was in the sample. While his team members were disappointed, they were excited about the prospects for the future.

"If you can get such a faint trace from something like that, then if we find something on the island that the castaway has just touched, just as I just touched ... and we don't contaminate it ... then there's a very good chance we'll be able to extract DNA," Mr. Gillespie said.

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"Then we'll really be able to tell whether the castaway of Gardner Island was, as we suspect, Amelia Earhart," he said. "Maybe a year from now, we'll have a solution to the Amelia Earhart mystery."

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