Correcting Science’s Bone to Pick with Hydrochloric Acid
Trent alumni’s research looks to end debate on bone demineralisation agents
Tess Wilson ‘17, now the author of a published forensic science paper, originally came to Trent University to study Biology. In her first year, Tess took an introductory Forensic Science course on a whim. It was here she found herself infatuated with the inquisitive nature of forensic science and changed her major that year.
“I’ve always been a curious person, so I just thought it was cool that not everything was accepted,” said Tess, now pursuing a Master’s in Biochemistry & Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University. “There are things we know and there are things we still don’t know, and I enjoy going after the things we don’t know.”
Understanding Bone Demineralisation
When Tess, affiliated with Otonabee College, was studying at Trent and working with the Trent Environmental Archaeology Lab (TEAL), she started a paper on the analysis of bone collagen. Her thesis supervisor, Dr. Paul Szpak, director of TEAL, associate professor, and Canadian Research Chair in Environmental Archaeology, is also listed as an author on the paper.
The paper, titled Acidification Does Not Alter the Stable Isotope Composition of Bone Collagen, is published on PeerJ and compares two different methods for obtaining collagen from bone samples. One method uses hydrochloric acid (HCl), while the other uses ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA). Using collagen samples, researchers can determine things like diet and migration patterns of the animal or human whose bones are being examined, Tess says.
“In order to get that collagen out of the bone, we have to use different chemicals to be able to get the collagen isolated from other components of the bone, like the minerals and the fats.”
Settling the Debate
There was debate in the scientific community about whether the HCl agent for bone demineralisation provided less accurate results than its EDTA counterpart. Tess says her paper provides a definitive answer.
“Our research compared the effects of these different chemical treatments to see if they affected stable isotope composition of the collagen, to try to figure out, are we getting real results? Or are we altering them in the process of the treatment?” Tess explains.
Tess's study determined the two processes gave similar results, which they say has many implications from past and future research.
“The findings really have significance for both future and previous studies, because if we had found that the results were significantly different, that would be an indication that maybe our previous results from the hundreds of studies that have used HCl demineralization, were skewed because of the use of that chemical. Going forward, researchers can continue to use that agent for demineralization.”
HCl is cheaper and easier to prepare than the EDTA process, saving future researchers both time and money.
Tess is working to finish her Master’s in the Biochemistry department at McMaster, while collaborating with TEAL on other papers related to the work she did while at Trent. Tess hopes to continue in academia and publish more papers during and after completing her graduate studies.