A study of Genetic Anomaly as Illustrated by the Case of Skander Draco

University of Athens Department of Medical Genetics.

29th September 2019.

Anomalous Dorian and Illyrian DNA Profiles in the Modern World:  A Case Study - Skander Draco Incident.

I am, first of all, very excited to have the chance to tell my story at last! This is not the kind of medium I am used to publishing in but, as you will see, I have my reasons. I will give you the whys and the wherefores later on but, suffice it to say, I have somewhat exhausted my usual channels. What I am about to share represents the work of a career; that of myself and of my entire team. It is something incredible, something which could change history as we know it. It is earth-shaking. Please allow me to explain.

I head the Department of Medical Genetics at the University of Athens, in Greece and have done so for the last ten years. We are one of the premier facilities in the research of medical genetics in Europe and, some say, the world. We collaborate with and assist academics and experts from many places and will, on occasion share our expertise with law enforcement and doctors.

We contributed to the famous Human Genome Project; a world-wide effort to map and take a journey of discovery into what it really means to be human, take a look at the map, as it were! My team have helped to identify the triggers and causes of Alzheimer’s, Asperger’s and even some forms of cancer.  We were a part of the recent effort to find a vaccine against Ebola during the outbreak back in 2016. Police forces throughout Greece and, on occasion, Interpol, have come to us for help in challenging cases.

An Interpol detective I had worked with several times in the past – quite successfully I might add – telephoned me late one night. Much later than I would usually prefer! He was calling me from Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. A small island between Cuba and Puerto Rico, I have since discovered (I am now discovering all kinds of fascinating things about this politically and ethnically divided island, formally known as Hispaniola). A rather prominent local figure had been murdered recently. Initial studies of the cadaver’s DNA had identified him as not native to that island. This, added to the fact that there were three further bodies on the scene, all identified as  foreigners, led the police to contact Interpol, this is standard procedure  such cases, I hear.

It was quite the merry mystery, the detective told me, with his usual dryness. There was no record anywhere of the now deceased prominent individual. The man, who had gone by the name of Skander Draco had no record of his fingerprints, dental, DNA, appeared in no electoral roll or census in the world anywhere. He was, effectively, a ghost. Mr. Draco had Dominican ID but this, it turned out, was rather expertly forged. Investigations so far had managed to determine that he had been of Mediterranean or possibly Greek origin. As we were known for adding a sizeable portion of our country's data to the Human Genome Project; indexing, cataloguing and ordering the ethnicities and origins of the Greek peoples, he asked for us to see if we could shine any light on his mystery man.

He said that people with a criminal background, which it appeared Mr. Draco was, and a lot of money (again Mr. Draco was of this category) could do all kinds things to hide their origins if they needed to disappear. Money in the right places, records expunged or altered. We could help him narrow things down, perhaps, and give him a better place to look.

You have all, I am sure, seen what they call the “DNA photograph”,  what the media call the “genetic fingerprint”. That  series of coloured lines and bars which are unique to every individual in the world. Even maternal (or identical) twins will have a slightly different DNA profile. We can use these charts of DNA to trace passed on traits over time, through families and, with them determine where a person is from. You know that people of certain parts of the world share common characteristics; the colour of their skin, the shape of their eyes, the colour of their hair and whether it is curly for straight, all kinds of things. Thanks to the HGP (Human Genome Project) database, we can trace these inherited traits by locale right down, sometimes to a town or village. You have all heard, surely of those kits one can buy in pharmacies or partake of online where you can send a DNA sample (usually a saliva swab) to their lab and they will send you back a report of what part of the world you came from, your origin in fact. It has become a form of entertainment and the source of party pieces and conversation starters. I can tell you, as a professional, that you might want to know where your most personal of data is going before you consider one of these ‘genetic testing kits’. Data of  a genetic nature is highly valuable. Most of the time the ‘revelations’ you receive may be, shall we say, a little randomly generated based on your name and location, I mean how are you going to tell them that they are wrong? 

What we do is quite different and it actually works, we operate in a much more complicated and slower fashion but we can tell you who someone truly is when we have the right information.  He wanted us to see if we could not tell him who Skander Draco truly was.

I was more than eager to take part in this particular case! This man, this Skander Draco, had been all over the news and social media for months now. He had made a very successful run for the post of Mayor of Santo Domingo and  had ran his campaign on the issues, as they liked to say these days. He had appealed to the poor, he had supported them and had he made promises to them. Many said he was going to deliver on his promises like no politician on the island ever had before and actually help the poor, those who needed help most, not the rich, who really needed no help at all but seemed to receive a lot more than they should. Of course, the fact that he was assassinated by a sniper’s bullet as he delivered his acceptance speech meant that the world would never know what kind of Mayor he would have been and who he would have actually helped in the end. 

His speeches had been very stirring, though, they had really set light to one’s blood! I remembered when I saw a recording of one of his first; he had been so close to actually inciting a riot, I recall. This is one mystery I was more than happy to say yes to!

I eagerly awaited the package from the detective, itching to get started. It arrived by standard medical courier (all sealed and carried in person by the courier) the next day, together with the Interpol and coroner’s reports in their original Spanish with English certified translations. I studied these reports and data before calling in my team. Most of it was just what one would expect.  Skander Draco, unknown; man in  his mid- to late-thirties, of Mediterranean – possibly Greek – origin; shot in the neck causing death by catastrophic exsanguination caused by a severed carotid artery. He had, of course, died on scene before police or paramedics could arrive. Single bullet fired from a high-powered rifle, suspected sniper rifle of Eastern European manufacture. No suspect found. The current determination was assassination; either politically motivated or enemies finally catching up with Mr. Draco. The case remained open, however, until they could find out more about the victim. The other three male bodies found beside Mr. Draco were determined to be Indian, American and Turkish nationals; their names were not mentioned in any of the reports.  No injuries had been determined, no cause of death found for any of these three men. Mr. Draco’s was obvious, he had almost been decapitated by the shot; none of the other three men, though, had a single mark on them, the reports said.  Eye-witness accounts claimed that these three men had simply dropped dead suddenly; the very moment life had fled their friend, Mr. Draco.  There was the usual non-disclosure agreement attached. We could publish our findings as normal but no names or case details could be disclosed.

I called the team in and we started work straight away.  We had received samples of blood, tissue and bone fragments. I divided these among the team; ten men and women with a proven track record and pre-eminent in their field by themselves; for processing. We started with the famous DNA fingerprint and then we delved deeper to see what we could find out about the genetic constituents of Mr. Draco’s make-up. What we found surprised us, it surprised us greatly. Actually shocked would be a much better word to use for how we felt.

We got our picture of the travels of Mr. Draco’s genes and their starting point, as well as the places they had passed through on their way to the Dominican Republic before coming, potentially, home. His material showed his heritage to be 79% Dorian, 19% Illyrian  and 2% Attic Greek.  This was very different to what we had been expecting. We normally see much more the later Attic haplogroup and less of the much earlier Dorian. We had never seen the Illyrian before, that strain had gone extinct centuries ago. We shared a look as we all read the results. This did not help solve the mystery, it only deepened it.  Instead of finding answers, we had found many more questions.  What we were seeing here could not be possible. Either these samples had been contaminated or we had just been subjected to some kind of elaborate prank.  These samples had come from Interpol, first of all, and they were known for following all contamination prevention techniques very well when it came to evidence, unless the locals had messed things up before they arrived. Just where a small police force would get a hold of an extinct line of DNA is, of the course, the very obvious fly in that ointment. My detective was also rather famous among his colleagues, and throughout the international law enforcement community as a whole, for his complete lack of a sense of humour. Some said he also lacked a heart and a human pair of eyes (they called him Detective Dead-Eyes apparently) but that is not important right now. He did not joke, he was famous for it. We ran the samples again. We ran then three times more. We followed every step of the process stringently. We cleaned down everything  with sodium hypochlorite. We ran STR (short tandem repeat) tests, essential for LT (low template) samples such as ours, where the actual remains themselves are not present. We tested and tested until all of the sample material was used up.  The results were the same each time. Our man was an anomaly, an impossibility.

We needed further expertise. I knew enough about the genetic side of things to know that the haplogroups of DNA and RNA we had identified appeared to be of Dorian and Illyrian origin but I needed experts in those specific fields to either confirm or deny these findings, perhaps clarify matters further. I began enquiries with some contacts of mine; specialists inside the University itself and academics from within Greece and beyond. I kept our contract and ensured certain details were limited in our information. Also we had to determine whether there was actual on-site contamination. Detective Dead-Eyes faxed authorisation for myself and two members of my team to examine the cadaver itself. I contacted the coroner’s office and morgue in Santo Domingo for access to the body.  I admit I did not get far.

You see we are in the field of science and science is based upon quantifiable and ­provable facts.  There is no room to guess, there is no room for maybes. IF we were right and had found what could only be called an artefact from history, we needed to prove it. IF there was no contamination of the samples we had collected, we had to prove that also. We could take nothing for granted, No-one from the scientific community would take seriously results based upon assumptions. Contamination was highly unlikely but we had to prove it was so.

I had hit a wall with the coroner and I feel that it may have been due to my complete lack of Spanish. I recruited a colleague from the languages department who spoke Spanish and had him make some calls for me. He informed me that my barrier had, in fact, not been a linguistic one but a financial one. It appeared the gentleman we had established contact with had requested a donation on our part for assistance. We ran same calculations and found that assistance of this sort would cost us around 300 Euro, which sounded actually quite reasonable. In the past, when we had been dealing with other countries where the culture of “assistance bonuses” is common, we have been forced to make much larger – ha – donations to contacts than that. We needed access to the original cadaver and to be able to run tests both on it and obtain more samples to ­prove zero contamination­ of the samples and to test Mr. Draco’s material again once we had ­zero contamination documented properly.  I knew that we ­had to pay if we wanted access to Mr. Draco’s remains but this is Athens and we did invent democracy. I had to ask the team first. I wired the money later that afternoon.

It was then that something very unexpected happened. An certain Indian academic I had contacted; quite the expert on the campaigns of Alexander the Great in his country and the resulting Hellenisation of that region, by the name of Dr. Shamshir Naik, a tenured professor of Calcutta University arrived at our lab. He had caught a flight to Greece without even stopping to reply to my email. He knew much of the period the anomalous haplogroups originated from. He had brought a team also. This included the very eminent Dr. Maruisz Lupekos of the University of Macedonia; head of the Department of Balkan, Slavic and Oriental Studies, as well as other experts in the fields of history, archaeology and the relatively new field of archeogenetics. He had come very much ready to give us answers. One of the five members of Dr. Lupekos’ team had brought something which Dr. Naik felt of would be of immense value to us. Dr. Naik shook my hand with what I could only call a very cheeky grin and immense enthusiasm. He wished to first hear of and see out findings, then he would give us our surprise if it would help, he said.

I led them inside the lab and presented them with our data. All seven men listed with great interest, Dr. Lupekos gave a bark of laughter when he heard our subject’s name but said no more. Many questions were asked and requests made for points to be repeated or clarified. The high percentage of Dorian DNA found drew their immediate interest, for this haplogroup was said to have originated in ancient Macedonia. The presence of even a small amount of Illyrian DNA stopped them dead.

This is when Dr. Lupekos chose to speak – it was clear that a sample of DNA so rich in his history would be of immense value to him straight away; his nation had changed so much during the 20th Century. He asked us if we had heard about archeogenetics and we all nodded, we had to some degree knowledge of this emerging discipline; that is where we got the data to be able to identify the Illyrian haplogroup from, I told him; from experts in this field digging villages and burials in Albania. He smiled and moved on, introducing two of his colleagues; Marko Georgiou and Stenos Marcliev; eminent archeogenticists in his country. They, he advised us, had been working on obtaining DNA from the bones of the long dead, to remove the need for guess work from the field of archaeology. One could find out where a remains was from my analysing their molecular DNA, built into the very bones of human beings. Bones are often all seekers of ancient knowledge have so being able to extract DNA from those is incredibly useful. His team as a whole had an especial interest in the hero of their nation, Alexander the Great. 

I do not claim to understand the demographics and politics of that region, a close neighbour of ours, but I know things had been very complicated during our times. First it had become part of the USSR following WW2, had issues with Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, almost becoming embroiled in that terrible conflict when it exploded in the 1990’s. It had only just gained independence as a nation but much changed from Alexander and Philip’s day.  It was still struggling to be recognised by the UN as a country in its own right. Many looked back to the glory days of Alexander and his successors with more than just nostalgia.

The Doric/Dorian people originated from the mountains of Macedonia and the region of Epirus; near the oracular sanctuary of Dodona. It is said that Alexander was educated by Aristotle himself at a farm owned by the prince’s father in that area. It was also here that he met his life-long friend and, some say, lover Hephaestion. Illyrians though, this loose federation of tribes and, many say, catch all Greek term for any Northern non-Greek tribe, this DNA line had become extinct a long time ago. But there were many Illyrian, as well as Slavic , Greek and Eastern influences in Macedonia too, Alexander’s own mother Olympias had Illyrian blood in her. A man living today with Illyrian DNA could actually be considered a direct-line descendant of Alexander the Great! A relation certainly if the percentages were high enough, a cousin or from the same region certainly. This, Dr. Lupekos said, would be a discovery of immense gravity for his country. He and his colleagues were understandably excited by our data.

Dr. Lupekos continued. His team had found the site of the famous battle of Gaugamela, he told me and received permission to dig there by the Iraqi government now that things had calmed down somewhat and American troops had left. This battle was considered to be Alexander’s crowning moment when he dealt the numerically superior army of Darius a crushing defeat using superior tactics and training. Dr. Lupekos said this was the day Alexander won the Persian Empire and the end of the end of the Achaemenid Dynasty. Darius’ death by treachery later was considered incidental, Alexander won the East that day. There were, of course the skeletal remains of many kinds of Greek, Macedonians and Persians in all their panoply there. Dr. Lupekos’ team has managed to extract alleles, serotypes and DNA from the remains and had constructed profiles for each ethnic group present. He felt that this work would help to pinpoint the origins of our man by having a baseline to work from. I stared at him wordlessly, this was incredible! I stared at Dr. Naik, who was staring right back with a wide grin on his face. This could be exactly what we needed!

I immediately called everyone together for a conference. Anyone who knows anything about Mediterranean people knows what we normally call a conference , others call an argument. It usually involves all parties trying to talk simultaneously and over one another and generally getting in each other’s way; not an entirely efficient form of communication. This time this was not how it was. Almost everyone was silent, faced shiny with anticipation, eyes bright with it as Dr. Lupekos and I recounted what had been discussed. None doubted the potential gravity of this moment. We were to start work right away. One of our – ha – technophiles, said that he could, indeed, wrote a software program to sift, sort, compare, index and overlay Dr. Lupekos’ data with our own. He adjusted his worn t-shirt bearing the logo of a popular science fiction program and smiled shyly. He announced he would need two of our number to help him complete this task of identifying which – if any – of Alexander’s three-thousand years dead soldiers “knew” our man, Mr. Draco; which traits they shared and what commonalities they had; as well as ethnic DNA profiles matching or bearing similarity. If this man was in anyway related to soldiers from 4th Century B.C Macedonia or Greece, the software they would write was going to prove it. Said software code could be made available to anyone who needed to see it should the need arise. Nothing further needed to be said, Kostas (the geek) and his crew to his workstation and got started. The rest of us could only wait. We all sat watching our technophiles at work with some degree of fascination. After An hour or two of relative silence, refreshments and food were requested. Said items arrived and were quietly consumed, we others chatter quietly while we ate. Hours passed and we could hear nothing but the hushed discussion of our trio and the tac-tac-tac of the keyboard; occasional huffs of frustration and sighs. Before we realised it, the sun was coming up. The Kostas returned beaming. It was ready, he said, could we please have the data. 

We gave it to him and he fed it in and set the program running. He studied the progress bar he had programmed and informed us that it would take three hours, more or less. It was then decided that this would be a fine time for breakfast and to refresh ourselves. I guided our visitors to the guest shower and bathroom facilities, then to our canteen where we commandeered a large table and ate toasted rolls and drank bitter coffee, chatting further as we ate. Dr. Naik appeared to greatly enjoy his and was all smiles at the table. As we spoke, I realised how deep and detailed his knowledge was. I had never seen him published but he appeared to know much; things I had heard about and things I had not. As a Greek, I knew our history. As an Athenian, I knew of Xerxes’ burning of our great city, of the great naval victory which cast him out of Greece and, thereafter, of Alexander leading Greek vengeance to the Persian. Dr. Naik filled in the gaps of the Indian campaign, about which little was known here in the West; how Hellenistic influences remained in his culture and folklore. How our DNA was still present in his people and how he had been part of a project to trace Alexander’s route through the ancient world by identifying key genetic markers along the way. I was powerfully intrigued by this and knew that I would be talking to this fascinating man again!

It was then that Kostas came running into the canteen – clearly he had been looking all over for us – the program was finished with the data and we had results. Everyone stopped what they were doing and followed him. His two colleagues were sat there, trying to hide their smiles, one was fidgeting.  I felt my stomach flutter as I looked at the screen. 94% Probability Match, it said, under the section labelled Macedonians; 84% under Greeks, 23% under Persians and 15% under Other. That meant that none of the Macedonians from the samples Dr. Lupekos had brought were direct antecedents of our man but they were countrymen of his. That meant that we had a sample from a direct-line descendant of 4th Century B.C Macedonians! Kostas clicked the ‘OK’ button and the summary screen went away, more data filled the screen; it was the Illyrian haplogroup which our man had which was mostly missing; or there was less of it in the sample group than he had. My breath caught in my throat and my eyes met those Dr. Lupekos. His eyes were moist and it looked like he was about to cry, they widened and his jaw set. This data was telling us a lot but one thing it was indicating, as  as the data could – because of the higher value in our man’s Illyrian haplogroup but high match with the Macedonian fallen from Gaugamela – what we were looking at. This man was a Macedonian, of that there was no doubt; his DNA could be traced back to 4th Century B.C. He was also very likely to be a direct-line descendant of Alexander the Great himself! He was also, unfortunately, dead. This could mean that, in one single day, we had found Alexander’s lost line only to see if extinguished forever. 

It was a moment of incredible poignancy. Dr. Lupekos averted his gaze and said something to his colleagues, then to Dr. Naik. I was sure that they were asking about potential for corruption of the samples. There were asking if this data was totally reliable. It was this moment that my mobile phone decided to ring. It was my Spanish-speaking colleague; he had spoken to the man in the morgue where Mr. Draco has been placed. The cadaver in question was no longer there, he told me. It has vanished, he had been told and a significant degree of consternation had erupted in Santo Domingo as a result. Mr. Draco has vanished, completely. No further samples had or could be taken, we were at a dead end. 

Taking a deep breath I shared this news with my anxious colleagues. Dr. Lupekos’ face fell immediately, he knew what that meant. There was no way we could prove zero contamination of the samples. We may well be sitting on one of the biggest discoveries of modern times, one of incredible significance for his country, but we could do nothing about it. He shook his head and announced that his team would be in touch and to please inform him if anything changed, he had a plane to catch. We could keep the samples, they had others. Dr. Naik remained a moment, looking somewhat ashamed of his colleague’s Slavic abruptness. He handed me his card and asked that I telephone or email him the moment I hear anything, anything, not matter how insignificant it may seem at the time. He, too, then left.

We knew that was it. One the edge of a truly monumental discovery but our data was effectively useless from a scientific perspective. We were all utterly convinced that the data spoke the truth but we could convince no-one else of that without first proving that our samples were clean. That the source of those samples had been spirited away meant  that we could never do that. We would publish no paper, write in no journals, attend no fancy parties, be awarded no Nobel Prize, and change no history. Everyone looked very tired and deflated suddenly. A lot of time and a lot of work only to hit a huge roadblock.  It was not like we had never experienced set-backs before in our careers but never one of this magnitude. We decided to break for the day and get some long overdue rest.

It was very early in the morning, three days later, that the call came. My Spanish-speaking colleague both tired and excited at the same time. He had been awoken by a call himself, one from Santo Domingo, from our enterprising friend, in fact. Said individual felt very bad about taking our money, it was relayed, while giving us nothing of real value in return. He had been working on our behalf in the meantime to try and find something worth our investment. The cadaver of Mr. Draco had yet to be located, although nobody seemed in a hurry to find it or deeply investigate it’s disappearance either. Odd don’t you think? He asked me in proxy. He had, however found one thing which I might find of value. The three foreigners who had fallen lifeless to the stage at the moment Mr. Draco died? These remains had indeed been repatriated to their respective countries. However, the coroner had done one thing right, it would appear. In the case of unexplained deaths in tropical countries, samples were collected from the bodies before they were released to shipped to their homes in order to ensure the absence of infectious diseases and pathogens and/or parasites which may have been responsible for the deaths. Full clean procedure and contaminant elimination had both been followed to the letter due to the risks of infection. This, we were told, was documented very well and correctly. He could obtain these samples for us. There would be risks pertaining to this on his part due to where this material was located but, due to his earlier lack of efficiency, he would give us a discounted service this time.  For 200 Euro, the material would be sent to us. At this point I would have gladly sent him the money out my own pocket for samples which were proven to be free of contamination. This is exactly what I did; democracy be buggered this time!

The courier arrived the very next day. I called the team in without telling them why. I struggled to contain  my smiles as I cradled the dry-seal container on my lap. As they came in, everyone regarded the container and its accompanying pouch curiously as they got themselves coffee and took a chair in our loose circle. Nothing but the usual greetings was said. I waited for them to all be seated before speaking. I told them what the dry-seal container and pouch contained and what I had been appraised of regarding it.  I told them that there were guaranteed uncontaminated samples in here with all the correct documentation to prove it. I told them we would follow procedure, we would record everything on video as if we were on a criminal investigation ourselves and loved the rules as if they were our own children. I watched their eyes change and smiles start to emerge. This was the break we had been waiting for. Mysterious deaths. They had been with Mr. Draco at the moment of his death and though we had none of his DNA here ( all clothing of these three had been incinerated per procedure)but we had the next best thing. We had people who had been present at his death and people who had very mysteriously died th