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DNA research gets down to root of subsidence claims

RESEARCHERS AT Newcastle University are using DNA fingerprinting to help insurers identify trees that cause subsidence, and have established what they believe is the first company in the UK to offer such a service.

When two trees of the same kind grow in an area it can be difficult to find out which one is causing a problem. Related disputes can often last for years, said Dr Kirsten Wolff, reader in evolutionary genetics at Newcastle University's School of Biology, and a director of the company Bioprofiles.

'We try to establish which tree is to blame and thus indicate which insurance company should pay out, ' she said.

'The problem is much easier to solve when there are different trees growing in the area. It's easy to tell the difference between an oak tree root and chestnut tree root, for example. It's when you are faced with trees of the same kind in the same vicinity that the scientists have to step in.' Wolff and company director Dr Marie Hale begin by taking samples from the suspect trees and the root causing the subsidence.

They use three methods of genetic analysis in the laboratory to compare the samples.

First, they carry out a technique known as RAPD (random amplified polymorphic DNA), which involves creating a DNA barcode that can be used to compare samples.

If this fails they move on to microsatellite analysis or DNA profiling, where they look for differences in the lengths of DNA fragments. The third test is DNA sequencing, which shows the 'nuts and bolts' of the samples' genetic makeup.

It takes about two weeks for a full analysis.

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