Thousands of "missing" vials containing the DNA of Italians with very long lifespans weren't stolen after all. The vials, reported missing earlier this week, weren't stolen after all — they were legally moved to a separate laboratory more than three years ago by a researcher who worked in the lab.
This DNA was collected years ago as part of widespread research interest in the island of Sardinia, whose residents are some of the world’s longest living people. On average, 21 out of every 10,000 residents in one area of Sardinia live to age 100. In comparison, only four out of 10,000 Americans get to celebrate that birthday.
A lab technician discovered the "missing" vials in August and the incident only became public this week. Because there was no sign of forced entry, prosecutor Biagio Mazzeo told the press that it was likely the vials were stolen by someone who had access to the lab in Perdasdefogu, a city in the north of Sardinia. But researcher Mario Pirastu — who had worked with the samples — contacted investigators on Wednesday when he realized that the vial were part of a larger batch now being stored at San Giovanni di Dio hospital in Cagliari, Sardinia's capital. Pirastu had moved the vials himself.
Though the "theft" has now been cleared up, it's still unclear who owns the actual vials. The vials were stored at Parco Genos, a small lab in Perdasdefogu. But Pirastu says that the vials did not belong to Parco Genos, but to a research company called Shardna. Shardna, which recently filed for bankruptcy, recently sold the vials to Tiziana Life Sciences, a British biotech company that wanted them for research into aging.
The decision to sell the DNA to Tiziana angered many local residents, who argued that they had agreed to donate DNA as a form of public service and did not approve of their genetic material being sold to a for-profit business. Because the DNA — sold for around $290,190 — was collected by a public lab but now owned by private business, it is unclear whether the donors' consent still applies and who should be able to use the vials.
Scientists have long theorized that good genes contribute to the Sardinians’ long lifespan — especially since certain villages have some of the most genetically homogenous people in the world. (If a group of people who live longer all have similar genes, it’s a little more likely they’re reaching 100 for genetic reasons.) This theory led many geneticists to collect data for studies about aging. Nowadays, researchers don’t focus quite as much on genes and think it’s likely that the lifestyle and diet choices of Sardinians may be responsible.
Update Sept. 16, 2016 3:30 EDT: This story has been updated to include new information on the whereabouts of the vials.