November 19, 2004
| On Oct. 6, 1978, Patricia Roisinblit and her husband were kidnapped in Argentina by military supporters of the Videla regime, and incarcerated in a concentration camp. Eight months pregnant at the time, Patricia was never seen alive again, but gave birth to a son before she joined the swelling ranks of "the Disappeared."
Her mother, Rosa, became the vice president of the Asociación Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo. Every Thursday morning, Rosa and "the Grandmothers" courageously marched in the central square of Buenos Aires to remember the tens of thousands of civilians kidnapped and murdered by the Argentine military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983. Las Abuelas also demanded the reappearance of the hundreds of missing grandchildren, and — although it was years before genome projects and PCR became household words — realized that DNA methods might hold the key to identifying the grandchildren.
In 1983, they turned for assistance to Mary-Claire King, a UC-Berkeley geneticist and human rights activist who had worked in South America. Ten years earlier, King had launched her career in dramatic style, capturing the cover of Science with a paper that demonstrated that chimps and humans are genetically 99-percent identical. She would go on to map the breast cancer gene in 1990, a crucial milestone in its eventual isolation (see "King for a Year").
Holding a banner of photos of "the Disappeared," the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo rally in Buenos Aires.
King has known Rosa since the first day she arrived in Buenos Aires in 1984. "The first afternoon I visited, she was showing me all the notebooks in which they'd collected the circumstantial information about the missing children. I said, 'You remind me of (A Tale of Two Cities') Madame Defarge, knitting into her scarf the names of the oppressors of her people, just waiting for a chance to get her revenge.' Rosa loved this story, and she said, 'Niña, I don't have time to knit anymore. I use a personal computer!'"
Since then, King has embraced the increasingly more sophisticated DNA technology on hand: from rudimentary human leukocyte antigen (HLA) typing in the early 1980s, to mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequencing, to PCR and microsatellite analysis in certain cases. King's team also developed methods to purify DNA from dental remains — a standard methodology in modern victim identification procedures.
A DNA Story
In 1999, Rosa finally found her grandson, Patricia's son. Following a tip-off, a boy named Guillermo, raised by a couple with Air Force ties, agreed to be tested. King found that mtDNA samples from Guillermo, Rosa, and Patricia were identical, yet differed from all of the 2,000 Argentine samples in her database. "I didn't have any idea who he might be when I tested the sample," King says, "but he matched Rosa, and we called her and said she should be prepared for who he might be. She was both ecstatic and just beside herself."
Everybody loves a happy ending, but the story is more complicated. Rosa admits, "For my grandson, it was a great shock to find out the truth: that he was adopted by a military family, that his real mother had been killed. Now he's having to come to terms with it; it's very difficult for him." Among the adjustments, King says, was learning that he was a Jew, when he'd been raised in a conservative Catholic household.
King has applied DNA technology in the cause of human rights in a dozen or more countries, from central America to Africa and Asia. "The impact on children of this kind of behavior by adults is, of course, worldwide," she says. "[Argentina] is the one place in which the society has been open about discussing it. We need to know what the impacts of this are in children in Rwanda and the Balkans and vast numbers of other places where the same sort of activities have been carried out."