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Lab scientists find better ways to ID individuals who die in catastrophic events

Uploaded: May 21, 2018
Researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), including Katelyn Mason and Deon Anex (shown here in photo taken by Julie Russell), have developed new, more accurate means of identifying the remains of individuals recovered from challenging environments and circumstances.

The new processes could help determine the identity of partial remains from catastrophic events, such as plane crashes, fires or the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

According to a report by Livermore Lab spokesman Steve Wampler, scientists have found a way to use protein markers from human tissue for identification from bones.

This follows a 2016 Livermore Lab announcement that its scientists had developed a science-based, statistically validated way to use protein markers from human hair to identify people and link individuals to evidence.

These biological identification methods, Wampler reports, exploit information encoded in proteins and could have multiple applications.

Wampler said that Livermore researchers view the protein marker advance as an additional tool for the forensic science community and a complement to DNA, which is the gold standard for human identification, but fragile in several ways.

Their work is described in a paper published online by “Forensic Science International,” an Amsterdam-based journal.

“One of the most exciting aspects of this research is that it seeks to provide a completely new objective methodology for human identification,” said LLNL chemist Brad Hart, the director of the Lab’s Forensic Science Center and a co-author of the paper.

Hart said it is “critical” that the forensic science community needed to expand the identification tools available to identify remains of those who couldn’t be recognized by routine means.

Added Lab chemist and paper co-author Deon Anex: “The use of protein markers from human hair and now bones can complement existing techniques based on DNA. It can be especially valuable if DNA is missing or compromised.”

The new protein marker technology addresses a 2009 National Research Council report on forensic science that detailed the weaknesses of many current approaches and reported an urgent need for new science-based forensic methods.

Wampler said that another LLNL team member, biochemist Katelyn Mason, the paper’s lead author, noted, “This is the first manuscript to describe the detection and validation of protein markers from human bones. The results show this approach can provide a powerful new tool for forensic science.”

In addition to Hart, Anex and Mason, other co-authors for the paper are Glendon Parker, who previously worked at Livermore and is now an adjunct associate professor in the Environmental Toxicology department at UC Davis, and Todd Grey, who is retired from the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner.

In the Forensic Science International study, the team examined rib bone samples from 10 recently deceased male and female individuals, finding a total of 35 different protein markers. Researchers found enough markers to provide a unique pattern for an individual that would distinguish that person in ranges of from 1 in 6 people to 1 in 42,000 people.

While Hart said protein markers from human hair are more valuable for identifying people or linking them to evidence, the use of bone protein markers could help with human identification in cases where there isn’t other evidence.

“There is inherently less genetic variability in proteins present in bone compared to human hair,” Hart said. “For purposes of identifying people or linking them to evidence, hair proteins are more valuable.

Still, using protein markers from human bones could help determine the identity of partial remains from catastrophic events, such as plane crashes, fires or the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Wampler said that the Livermore research team believes that protein markers from bones could be useful on archeological time scales, such as 250 years or more, as has been demonstrated with protein markers from human hair.

Using their current sample sizes, the researchers now are able to find enough distinctive markers to provide a unique pattern for an individual that would distinguish that person among a population of 1 billion people.

Current research funding for the $200,000 project comes from LLNL’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program, which supports high-risk, potentially high-payoff projects at the forefront of science and technology, Wampler said.
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