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Osama bin Laden’s DNA

May 22, 2011

The Deathers are calling for photos of the dead terrorist Osama (Usama) bin Laden to “prove” that he was really killed May 2, 2011.

While I am as skeptical as the next person, I was thinking that, instead of the photo – I want to see the gel.

Members of the Obama administration claimed that DNA evidence had proven that the man killed was Osama bin Laden with 99.9 % confidence. Numerous bloggers and print media have picked apart this statement given that the government’s claim was that they compared the DNA sample allegedly taken from Osama bin Laden to his half-sister because, the more distantly related two people are, the more difficult it is to get a DNA match that is significant.

That difficulty aside, what would I think of the gel (or gels)? I have been reading up on the possible methods our government could have used to make a rapid genetic test of relationship. They probably would have used a marker such as short tandem repeats (also known as microsatellites) which are commonly used in DNA fingerprinting. In reality, all it would show me is whether the two samples came from genetically related people at the level of relationship claimed in that there are predictable levels of DNA similarity given a specific degree of relatedness. In addition, the gels would tell me if the people the samples were taken from came from the Arabian Peninsula because population subdivision leads to predictable geographic patterning in the distribution of different alleles of these microsatellites. But beyond that, all we could really know is whether or not the samples came from two half-siblings from a particular geographical subpopulation of humans. Nothing more; nothing less. It really is a chain of custody issue. Did the DNA sample tested come from the person Navy SEALs killed in Pakistan and was it compared to a living (or dead) relative of Osama bin Laden?

So, in the end, it all comes down to trust. How much do you trust your government? How much do you trust scientists to not be dishonest with their data? How much do you trust the process of science? This is why we teach our students about the importance of research ethics, proper documentation of data and samples, etc.

I for one trust science and most of the scientists I have come to know. In the end, scientists want to ferret out the dishonest ones in our ranks, and we generally, eventually do. Because it is in our best interests to do so.

I trust the process of science and the character of scientists much more than I trust elected officials or the people who serve under them. But, until I see proof to the contrary, I will side with al-Qaeda, the President and some unnamed molecular biologists and believe that Osama bin Laden is actually dead.

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