Police in Mexico have used DNA from the digestive tracts of maggots to identify the body of a woman who was burned beyond recognition. According to New Scientist magazine, this is the first time that human DNA recovered from a maggot's gut has been used to successfully identify a victim in a legal case.
When police found a burned body in the woods, the remains were charred to the point that no analyzable DNA remained. Investigators suspected that the body belonged to a woman who had been missing for 10 weeks because her high school graduation ring was found near the remains. Unable to make a positive identification, police enlisted the aid of scientists from the Autonomous University of Nueva León in San Nicolás, Mexico.
A team of researchers, including pathologists María de Lourdes Chávez-Briones, Marta Ortega-Martínez and their staff, dissected three of the maggots and removed the contents of their stomachs. By analyzing DNA found in that material, the team was able to ascertain that the victim was female.
Then the scientists performed a paternity test using DNA from the missing woman's father. The results came back positive, establishing a 99.7 percent likelihood that the test subjects were father and daughter.
While it is rare that investigators find a body so badly damaged that this type of identification is necessary, the field of forensic entomology, that is, the study and use of insects in determining cause, manner and other details about an unexplained death, is booming. Jeffrey Wells of Florida International University in Miami told New Scientist that prosecutors could find a species of maggot in a vehicle and establish that the vehicle had been used to transport a specific corpse.
Additionally, the type and number of insects, their eggs and larvae on a corpse can give investigators a more accurate time and location of death than core body temperature or other physical evidence.
Martin Hall of the Natural History Museum in London said that the field has rapidly expanded over the course of the last decade. In China, insect larvae from a headless corpse and a severed head were used in court to establish that the parts came from the same body. While forensic entomology is increasingly becoming part of all murder investigations, the evidence has only rarely been used in court.
Hall said that the believes insects at crime scenes have been too long ignored, and that in the end, police could come to see them as the first real investigators to arrive on the scene.
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