Experts should ‘pretty reliably’ be able to get MH17 DNA

Identification of the victims will be an international effort, overseen by the Dutch authorities and Interpol

A KML stewardess pays her respects at Schiphol Airport during a national day of mourning for the victims killed in Thursday’s Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 plane disaster, in Schiphol. Photograph:  Cris Toala Olivares/Reuters

A KML stewardess pays her respects at Schiphol Airport during a national day of mourning for the victims killed in Thursday’s Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 plane disaster, in Schiphol. Photograph: Cris Toala Olivares/Reuters

Wed, Jul 23, 2014, 22:04

As the first set of bodies of MH17 victims arrived in the Netherlands, efforts to identify them will begin. The remains were left outdoors for two days, in sweltering heat and rain, but expert investigators should “pretty reliably” be able to collect DNA to identify the remains.

“Overall, my guess is that as far as DNA analysis and identification, they should have pretty good success,” said Dr David Foran, director of the forensic biology laboratory at the University of Michigan.

He said the key to DNA identification is selecting tissue that has the least amount of DNA degradation, such as deep muscle tissue in the torso. If that is not available, investigators will typically seek skeletal tissue or dental records.

DNA collected from the remains must be measured against known reference samples, such as toothbrushes in people’s homes or hair, which MH17 forensic investigators have been collecting. If reference samples are not available, investigators can collect DNA samples from relatives, ideally parents or children who share half of each other’s DNA. Although entire families were killed in the crash, DNA can also be collected from relatives.

“When you start getting out to aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents, you actually want probably three or four or five people to be able to make a good statistical argument that you’ve got a positive ID because you’re going to be sharing less and less DNA,” Foran said.

Body parts can be identified by a similar DNA process and also by characteristics such as scars, tattoos and wedding rings. Once investigators establish that a body part belongs to a certain person, investigators will then have a record of that person’s DNA and be able to connect it with other remains. “It ends up being a kind of giant jigsaw puzzle of trying to place every body part based on its DNA or some other identifying characteristics,” said Foran.

The identification of the victims will be an international effort, overseen by the Dutch authorities and Interpol.

A four-strong Australian team of disaster victim identification experts left for Amsterdam on Tuesday. Led by forensic pathologist David Ranson, the team includes two odontologists, who specialise in identifying victims from dental records, and a pathology technician, who removes organs and reconstructs torn and tattered bodies. – (Guardian service)