Scientists are hoping to track down descendants of a crew which died in a doomed Arctic expedition.

A research team has carried out DNA analysis of bones and teeth which were found in eight sites where remains of sailors from the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were discovered. All 129 men involved in the polar expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, died when they abandoned the ships after they became stuck in heavy sea ice.

Now academics are appealing to genealogists in both the UK and Canada for help in tracking down people who are related to the Franklin sailors. They will then try and match the DNA found in the Arctic with living descendants to work out who died where.

Anne Keenleyside, chair of the anthropology department at Canada’s Trent University, said they hoped to take DNA samples from people who knew their ancestors had been part of that fateful journey.

She told The Canadian Press: “If they’re willing to submit a DNA sample in the form of a cheek swab, then we can analyse their DNA, compare it to the DNA extracted from these skeletal remains and see if there is a match.”

It is hoped that finding out more about who died in which location might shed some light on the mystery still surrounding the expedition.

Mystery surrounds fate of crew

The Franklin expedition left England in 1845, intending to travel on the Northwest Passage. It is believed Franklin himself died in June 1847 but that 105 men left the two ships in April 1848 hoping to walk to safety along the Back River.

Prof Keenleyside said: “Of the 129 crew members, we’ve only recovered the remains of maybe 30 of those individuals. What happened to the rest of them?”

The study found that 21 people died in a small area of Erebus Bay, around 70kn from where the crew first came ashore. However some managed to walk another 230 km to Montreal Island.

DNA tests can show whether two individuals are biologically related to each other. Paternity tests to identify the father of a child are the most common but other family relationship tests can be carried out.

In the case of the Franklin expedition, researchers may use Y chromosome testing, which can show whether two men are related to each other through their paternal line. The Y chromosome is passed from father to son unchanged and only mutates once every 10,000 years so could establish a family link between an individual and their ancestors.

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