Biology, ecology and biomedical science at Brighton

University of Brighton biosciences blog

Determining the sex of human remains – using tooth enamel

Scientists at the University of Brighton have discovered a new method of determining the sex of human remains – by testing tooth enamel. DNA sequencing is currently the most common method but this can be expensive, time-consuming, and often depends on finding a good quality sample. The new method is quicker, cheaper, and uses tooth enamel, the most durable human body tissue and the hardest tissue in the human body. It survives burial well, even when the rest of the skeleton or DNA has decayed.

The breakthrough has the potential to improve studies of archaeological finds and medical and forensic science. Researchers have tested the method on the remains of seven adults from the late 19th Century as well as male and female pairs from three archaeological sites ranging from 5,700 years ago to the 16th Century in the UK. In each case, the method successfully determined the sex, as confirmed by comparison with coffin plates or standard bone analyses.

The research has been carried out by Dr Nicolas Stewart, senior lecturer in the University’s School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences, with colleagues at Durham University and the University of São Paulo in Brazil.

They extracted peptides, or chains of amino acid molecules, from tooth enamel and with them they were able to identify sex chromosomes to determine if the teeth were from a male or female.

Dr Stewart said: “This new method can reliably determine the biological sex of humans of any age using a body tissue that is difficult to cross-contaminate and is most likely to survive and will make sex determination of adults and, for the first time, juveniles a reliable and routine activity in future.

“The method has potential implications for improving techniques for sex determination of human remains, and might have applications relevant to bioarcheaology, paleoanthropology and medical-legal science.”

The research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. Click here.

Laura Ruby • December 15, 2017

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