At this point, most Americans have used, or at least heard of at-home DNA testing kits like 23andMe and MyHeritage DNA. These innovative at-home testing kits utilize DNA fingerprinting technology that allows individuals to get a glimpse of their ancestral history, find long lost family members, and understand where their forefathers came from.
It’s all pretty amazing, and all from the comfort of your home. But now, scientists at the Swiss Gemmological Institute (SSEF) are finding new ways to wield this technology. Research being done at SSEF is applying the same DNA fingerprinting technology to trace the origins of natural and cultured pearls.
DNA Fingerprinting Technology to Identify Species of Pearl
Pearls are what are known as biogenic gems, also referred to as ‘organic gems’. Organic gems like pearls, corals, and ivory all are created when living animals produce mineral substances through a process called biomineralization. These biogenic gems are some of the oldest gems on the planet and have been treasured for millions of years. Studying biogenic gem materials is considered extremely important gemological research, and recent advancements in DNA technology have paved the way for monumental discoveries.
The hope of the Swiss Gemmological Institute SSEF is to create a method for documenting the origins of natural pearls and tracking the cultured pearl trade. The SSEF has joined forces with the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Zurich to expand their research and create pearl DNA databases.
Thus far, scientists have been able to conclusively distinguish these either pearl species by using DNA fingerprinting technology:
- Pinctada radiata (Arabian/Persian Gulf & Ceylon pearl oyster)
- Pinctada imbricata (Atlantic pearl oyster)
- Pinctada fucata/martensii (Akoya pearl oyster)
- Pinctada maxima (South Sea pearl oyster)
- Pinctada margaritifera (Tahitian black-lipped pearl oyster)
- Pinctada mazatlanica (Panama pearl oyster)
- Pinctada maculata (Pipi pearl oyster)
- Pteria sterna (Rainbow-lipped pearl oyster)
The partnership between the SSEF and ETH Zurich has already shown promising progress. They have managed to streamline the DNA fingerprinting process so that the required material needed to test each pearl is negligible and mostly non-destructive to the pearl itself.
All of these discoveries about pearl age dating were once out of reach. Their research opens up endless possibilities that will help gemologists better understand pearl trading routes and cultivation practices. Dr. Michael S. Krzemnicki, director of SSEF, said, “We are happy to build on decades of pearl research at SSEF to launch this new service for the pearl trade. DNA fingerprinting will contribute to further documenting the origin and geographic provenance of historic natural pearls and traceability efforts in the cultured pearl trade.”
These advancements aim to honor and better understand one of the older and most coveted gems known in recorded history. The continued DNA testing of other organic gems like corals and ivory are also being developed to afford both gemologists and scientists a broader understanding of these precious natural gifts.