May 25, 2003 

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DNA Helps Identify MIAs
March 21, 2003
MIA funeral procession
image: ABC News

As US troops move into Iraq, the families of U.S. servicemen face the terrible possibility that some of their loved ones might not return. More than 88,000 American service personnel are “missing in action” from conflicts dating back to World War II. But DNA identification is giving the families of some of these soldiers the gift of closure.

Douglas Brinkley, a historian at the University of New Orleans, explains how DNA shines a new light on identifying human remains. “During World War II, bodies were identified by people looking at teeth, trying to get dental records, or finding the dog tag of a dead soldier—very hard. But now we have DNA, and things have improved immensely. Even a fragment of a remain can open up, through DNA, a whole window of clues of who that person is. So it's a very exciting time in the science world to close, for the Defense Department, a lot of these cases that have been open for 50 years.”

As shown on PBS’s "NOVA", a recovery team went to Russia’s far eastern peninsula to examine the wreckage of Bomber 31, a rugged World War II PV-1 Ventura plane. The fate of Bomber 31 and its crew had remained a mystery for more than half a century, until a Russian historian accidentally discovered the wreck one day in 1999. Searching through the old debris was difficult, but the recovery team did manage to find some human remains, including two collar bones.

bone being sawed
image: ABC News

At the U.S. Army Central Identification Lab in Hawaii (CILHI), forensic anthropologists ground up samples from the bones and put them into a solution to release the DNA. They used a DNA sequencing machine to analyze the genetic sequence of the samples, and a computer compared it to the DNA sequences of living family members of the bomber crew. The bones were matched to two of the crewmen, mechanic Clarence Fridley from Montana, and gunner James Palko of Wisconsin. Because of DNA identification, these crewmen can now finally be laid to rest, more than half a century after they were declared missing in action.

Forensic scientists have two methods at their disposal when using DNA to identify remains. The method used to identify remains after the September 11th attacks analyzed nuclear DNA. This approach works best for people who have died recently.

The other method, used to identify the two crew members of Bomber 31, analyzes mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA. This approach is helpful in identifying the remains of people who died long ago, because mtDNA usually survives long after nuclear DNA has disintegrated.

Unlike nuclear DNA, which is a mixture of genetic material from both mother and father, mtDNA is passed on from just the mother to the offspring. Because all of a person's mtDNA is a copy of his or her mother’s, scientists can match it to the mtDNA of any maternal ancestor or descendant, even if the mtDNA comes from someone who died long ago, like the two crew members of Bomber 31.

In 2001, those working at CILHI identified the remains of no fewer than 94 service personnel. But forensic anthropologists have a big job ahead of them, with the number of yet-to-be-recovered remains of service members totaling approximately 1,900 individuals from the Vietnam War, more than 8,000 from the Korean War, and more than 78,000 from World War II.

“A great nation never leaves behind its dead,” says Brinkley. “You always go look for them, whether it's ten years or 20 years or 50 years. We owe it to them and to their families, to identify those people. To bring their bodies back so they can have a proper burial here in the United States.”



by Karen Lurie


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