DNA Testing Helps Identify Victims, Missing Persons
For the families and friends of the 100,000 people missing in the United States each day, DNA testing offers hope in the quest to finding answers. Unfortunately, the process of DNA testing, often used to match the DNA of a missing person to DNA from unidentified human remains, is not utilized to its fullest potential.
There are more than 40,000 unidentified human bodies at any given time in the US, but DNA samples are taken from only 15 percent of these human remains. The rest are burned or buried by medical examiners and coroners.
There are more 40,000 unidentified human bodies at any given time in the US.
The Answers Are In the Evidence
Since January, 2003, the University of North Texas System Center for Human Identification has been hard at work in helping to ease the minds of missing persons' families and identifying victims via the costly and specialized process of mitochondrial DNA testing.
UNT's forensics laboratory is one of only three in the United States that test both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondrial DNA testing is essential for identifying bodies when only bones or teeth are available, or in cases when analysis of a hair shaft of unknown origin is requested. The process is expensive, and only the California Department of Justice and FBI join UNT in the ranks of mitochondrial DNA testers.
Once a person is reported missing, a family member can report the case to a law enforcement officer, who can collect a reference DNA sample from the relative by swabbing the inside of his or her cheek. The sample is then shipped to a DNA testing facility like UNT.
"We send DNA collection kits to law enforcement agencies around the country, and only law officers can collect DNA samples and send them to us," says Stephen Gammon, Administrator of UNT's System Center for Human Identification.
Once a DNA sample reaches the laboratory, it is analyzed and entered into a database called CODIS, which also contains DNA samples taken from human remains. Right now, UNT is holding and analyzing about 1,000 human remains.
Large efforts are being made in order to make DNA testing easier and more commonly practiced. In 2003, President Bush pledged $1 billion to a 5 year DNA initiative, and in Texas, state law requires that police officers provide family members of "high risk" missing persons DNA reference sampling materials.
Making Progress in DNA Testing
The process of identifying human remains is extremely tedious. According to Gammon, there are currently 11 scientists working at UNT's DNA identification lab.
"It takes a long time, usually several months, for us to identify human remains, because the DNA in the human remains is often partially disintegrated. Sometimes, we aren't able to identify human remains because the person's family never submitted a reference sample," says Gammon.
There are other complications that lead to problems in the DNA identification system, particularly a lack of coordination among the four federal DNA databases, which include CODIS. These databases need to be streamlined and combined, in order to allow more DNA matches to be made. If a DNA sample from an unidentified body is entered into CODIS, and it matches the DNA from a sample entered into the National Crime Information Center database, the match will go undiscovered, because the two databases do not share information.
Despite flaws in the federal database system, DNA testing has been successful in many cases. To date, UNT forensics experts have made over 100 positive identifications, five of which were cold hits. In addition, two murder convictions have been made as a result of positive identification.
Gammon says that one particularly notable case solved by the laboratory at UNT was that of Marcella Bachman, a runaway who was murdered by Wayne Nance and whose skeletal remains were discovered in Missoula, Mont. in 1984.
"Marcella's parents sent us a reference sample, and after several months, we were able to match their DNA to the bones sent to us by the Missoula police," Gammon says.
Thanks to more funding, DNA testing can make great strides in helping the families of missing persons and keeping criminals off the streets.