On a clear November morning in 1964 the Royal Canadian Navy’s Cape Scott embarked from Halifax, Nova Scotia, on a four-month expedition. Led by the late Stanley Skoryna, an enterprising McGill University professor, a team of 38 scientists onboard headed for Easter Island, a volcanic speck that juts out from the Pacific 2,200 miles west of Chile. Plans were afoot to build an airport on the remote island, famous for its mysterious sculptures of enormous heads, and the group wanted to study the people, flora and fauna while they remained largely untouched by modernity.
The islanders warmly welcomed Skoryna’s team, which brought back hundreds of specimens of plants and animals, as well as blood and saliva from all 949 of the residents. But a test tube of dirt turned out to be the biggest prize: it contained a bacterium that made a defensive chemical with an amazing property—the ability to prolong life in diverse species.