|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.
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 PBSâ€™s
"NOVA", a recovery team went to Russiaâ€™s far eastern peninsula
to examine the wreckage of Bomber 31, a rugged World War II
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
|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 motherâ€™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
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.”