• Kirk Hartley

Will Old and New Mass Torts Spring to Life Through New Science Applied to Old Facts and New Science

(The image is courtesy of the Danish National Biobank.)

Recent articles about genetic investigation of the Irish potato famine lead to renewed wondering about new science bringing new tort claims arising from previously unrecognized mass torts. Similar questions also arise prospectively thanks to current biobanking and other means for preserving anything from plants to bodily tissues and fluids. The questions are illustrated by recent advances in science, as applied to the Irish potato blight of the 19th century, along with today’s accrual rules about knowledge of a claim.

As to the potato famine, a new research article explains how the potato blight happened. As it turns out, a clever virus silenced the RNA of potatoes. According to the article, this is the first ever finding of an RNA silencing virus in which infection is promoted by "proteins produced by eukaryotic pathogens — nucleated single- or multi-cellular organisms…" Thus, plainly new science, with ongoing investigation because forms of the blight remains with us today.

But, how do we know what was going on in potatoes back during the famine of the 1800s? Because some far-sighted plant scientists of the 19th century ground up potatoes and stored the samples in glass jars. Recently, current scientists were able to retrieve and sequence DNA extracted from those old samples stored away well more than 100 years ago. Ring up another positive outcome for museumomics, as it’s called by some (and perhaps also think back to the Jurassic Park premise of DNA trapped in amber.)

Yesterday’s glass jars are the historic predecessors to today’s growing biobanks. Today, biobanks store, for example, cord blood, tissues and fluids. According to a January 2013 article, there now are over 600 formal biobanks in the US. No doubt the number is much higher if one were to find and count all the old freezers full of tissues stored away by pathologists.

Of course, there apparently are limits on how far we can go backwards in time. Recent research, for example, indicates a tentative theory of 521 years as the half-life of DNA. Working backwards from that tentative finding, the authors estimated that scientists probably cannot get useable data from DNA that’s older than 1.5 million years. So, maybe there are limits, but the limits certainly are broad enough to cover the last few generations of humans. Moreover, the limits may change – the half-life calculation is tentative, and amazing things recently were done with a single strand of ancient DNA.


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