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'Alien' Atacama skeleton surrenders its genetic secrets

Scientists investigate the genome of a tiny skeleton named "Ata" found in the Chilean desert and thought by some to have an extraterrestrial origin.

"Ata" is only 6 inches long.

Emery Smith

When you look at "Ata," you can understand why some UFO fans think the tiny skeleton comes from another planet. 

The 6-inch (15-centimeter) skeleton has an elongated skull like those seen in popular depictions of aliens. But Ata isn't an alien. She's human, and a team of researchers are learning more about her genetic secrets.

Ata's nickname comes from her discovery in a leather pouch behind an abandoned church in Chile's Atacama region in 2003. Besides her oddly shaped skull and minute size, Ata has only 10 pairs of ribs, rather than the usual 12, and showed signs of accelerated bone age. The skeleton had the bone composition of a 6-year-old, but was likely a fetus.

A closer look at Ata's skull.

Emery Smith

The remains ended up on the black market and in the hands of a private collector in Spain. Stanford professor Garry Nolan first got a chance to investigate the skeleton in 2012.  

Nolan soon debunked the alien theories of Ata's origins when a DNA analysis showed the skeleton to be a modern human female child. 

A team of scientists, including researchers from the University of California at San Francisco, has now advanced that original study with a look at Ata's full genome. They published the results Thursday in the journal Genome Research.

Think of a genome as a set of genetic instructions, much like a blueprint. Ata's genome shows her unusual appearance is tied to some rare genetic mutations linked to bone development. 

"Analyzing a puzzling sample like the Ata genome can teach us how to handle current medical samples, which may be driven by multiple mutations," said study co-author Atul Butte, a pediatrics professor at UCSF. He says in Ata's case, "mutiple things went wrong."

Ata's genome also points to Chilean origins with ties to the Chilote indians. Nolan hopes Ata's genome might teach us more about accelerating bone growth, which could be helpful to people with bad fractures. He also hopes the modern skeleton, which dates back about 40 years, will return home some day. 

"I think it should be returned to the country of origin and buried according to the customs of the local people," Nolan said.

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