Team studies DNA preservation in mass disasters

Sep 18, 2013

To help identify victims after mass disasters, such as hurricanes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, wars or acts of genocide, researchers at Sam Houston State University will investigate new techniques to preserve tissue samples and speed up the DNA identification process.

During natural and manmade disasters, forensic personnel often face adverse conditions, such as remote locations, intense heat, and the lack of electricity and resources. As a result, bodies may be left to decompose rapidly in the heat, creating a and also making genotyping more difficult as the DNA in those remains also is degrading.

"In these circumstances, forensic personnel may be faced with the task of identifying hundreds or even thousands of bodily remains in a very short period of time," said Sheree Hughes-Stamm of the Department of Forensic Science. "Through improvement in the collection and processing of tissue samples for DNA analysis, we can identify more victims and help bring closure to those who would otherwise never know what happened to friends and family."

The research is being funded through a National Institute of Justice grant to develop more cost effective, streamlined and efficient methods for the identification of victims of natural and mass disasters.

Hughes-Stamm will test several different solutions, both commercial preservatives and in-house mixes of readily available chemicals, such as various salts, solvents and alcohols. These preservatives are designed for use in the field to collect and preserve tissue samples from the deceased, and then be stored in hot and (without refrigeration) until they can be processed. The study will focus on maximizing the quantity and quality of DNA from the tissue into the surrounding solution so that this "free DNA" can be extracted directly from the preservatives for DNA-typing. This will greatly speed up the identification process.

The research will be conducted at SHSU's Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility (STAFS), a state-of-the-art, willed-body donor facility dedicated to scientific research and training. It is only one of six facilities in the country to use human body donations for the purpose of research. Tissue samples for this research will be obtained from cadavers at STAFS at various stages of decomposition.

The goals of this project are to develop improved DNA for , and to optimize more rapid processing methods for those samples in situations such as after mass disasters. Each compound will be evaluated on how well it preserves the DNA from human skin and muscle tissue when stored in harsh environmental conditions and how much good quality DNA can be retrieved directly from the surrounding preservative for more rapid genotyping.

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