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DNA helps identify the dead in California

DNA testing

The complex, delicate and harrowing task of identifying those who were unable to escape the flames has begun in the devastated town of Paradise in California. Forensic anthropologists are carefully picking through the ash to identify remains and give closure to families desperately searching for relatives.

At least 63 people have been found dead in recent days, with hundreds unaccounted for, making this the most destructive fire in state history. More than 9800 homes have been destroyed, 366 commercial buildings and a third of the town’s schools. The task ahead is daunting: almost 700 people are still unaccounted for.

Forensic anthropologists who have volunteered to help have come from California State University, Chico, and universities in Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada. Their specially-trained eyes scan the charred landscape, which is scattered with the mangled remains of buildings and vehicles.

“We’re skilled at telling the difference between burnt wood and burnt bones; and if they’re bones we can tell if they are human or animal”, explained Marin Pilloud, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Nevada in Reno.

Osteologists gather all possible information at the site so that the anatomical elements of a missing person can be gathered together. Bone features are examined, such as whether the ends of bones are fused together, as in someone older; or not, to indicate a younger person. Bones can also be used to tell the size, sex and in some instances the race of an individual.

DNA testing

Once all the information that can be gleaned from the site is noted down, the bodies are transported to the Sacramento County Morgue for autopsy. Two mobile morgue units have also been requested to assist in the identification efforts. At the morgue, investigators attempt more traditional means of identification, such as using fingerprints and dental records.

Because so many of the bodies are believed to have been burned beyond recognition, officials are asking family members of those missing to submit DNA samples to see if they match any of the still-unidentified dead. Only a cheek swab needs to be submitted at the sheriff’s office.

Making a plea for DNA samples from relatives even before all the victims had been recovered is unprecedented, said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea. “Nobody has ever had to do this before.”

Once the bodies are in the morgue, the coroner’s office would look for any tissues that still had some structure to them. A swab, Q-tip or little piece is cut and put into a small tube that is then sent to the lab where the DNA is extracted. If no tissue is present, it is still often possible to get DNA from teeth.

Once the sample is collected, a process called amplification is used to make many copies of the DNA. Then, using FBI protocols, 20 specific regions on the person’s genome, which are highly variable person to person, are analyzed. DNA testing then looks for any matches with the database of relatives searching for their loved ones.

Given the large number of victims and the need to gather DNA samples from family members, it could take weeks or even months to match all the samples. It’s unclear how long the search for victims will need to go on. While many of those reported missing have been found safe, there are still families waiting for any information. It’s that work that keeps the searchers going.

“At the end of the day, we know we’re providing closure to someone, or helping a situation or facilitating identification”, said Kyra Stull, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Nevada, Reno.

“We’re all human … no matter how many (recoveries) you do and how good you get at keeping your composure, it takes a toll on you”, said Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea. “It has an impact.”

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