Scientists warn against closing the case of whether or not the famed poet was poisoned

Neruda’s death in 1973: a possible probe of the military junta that killed Augusto Pinochet Ugarte

The international panel of specialists was asked to analyse the remains, after the judge ordered the exhumation. In 2013, that panel reported that it had screened the remains for some 2,000 chemical agents, such as arsenic, but did not find any evidence of poisoning.

“An injection is not the only possible explanation,” says Marie-Louise Kampmann, a forensic genticist at the University of Copenhagen who was part of the panel. For instance, “one alternative would be eating the bacteria in poisoned food”, because C. botulinum can grow in improperly canned foods, she says.

Chilean Judge Paola Plaza said the scientist’s report was delivered Wednesday to the court investigating Neruda’s case. She told reporters in Santiago that it was impossible for her to read it yet. She did not give a timetable for next steps in the case, but she did say that it was in the study phase.

There is a possibility of opening a criminal investigation into Neruda’s death. Neruda was in a hospital following the 1973 coup but had told his driver at the time that he wanted to go into exile in Mexico and to pack his bags and come take him to the airport. He planned to lead an opposition to Augusto Pinochet Ugarte who was leader of the military junta that took over Chile. Five hours later, he was dead.

The evidence against Botulinum toxin is far from conclusive, but neither does evidence against poisoning nor infection in the teeth

Some of the researchers who helped with the investigation, however, say the evidence is far from conclusive. There is nothing in the science that proves he was poisoned, says Hendrik Poinar, a molecular geneticist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. He says it’s not a “closed door” or a “smoking gun”.

The scientists hope the judge will allow more research to be carried out. “We have worked with a heavily degraded and only partial genome,” Poinar says. One-third of the DNA sequence was broken down by the panel. In that sequence, the researchers identified a gene responsible for producing the botulinum toxin, although they did not find evidence of the toxin itself. Not all strains of C. botulinum produce the toxin requires a follow-up in order to be sure, Poinar says.

Carles Lalueza Fox, an ancient-DNA researcher and director of Barcelona’s Natural Sciences Museum in Spain, who was not involved in the studies, agrees. He cannot rule out the possibility that some kind of infections occurred in the teeth after death.

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