This podcast episode discusses how rapid DNA analysis has become an important method for identifying unknown human remains, especially in cases of mass fatality.
In this second episode of the miniseason on unidentified human remains, the Just Science Podcast host talks with Neal Parsons, a Research Forensic Scientist at RTI International, to talk about how rapid DNA analysis has become an important method for identifying unknown human remains, and is used by law enforcement agencies, accredited crime laboratories, coroner’s offices, and the military. Neal Parsons discusses the many applications for rapid DNA, including booking stations where arrestees are processed, sexual assault casework, military sensitive site exploitation for intelligence operations, at the national border for confirmation of familial relatedness for undocumented migrants, and also for the identification of human remains; he also notes that rapid DNA analysis is especially useful in cases of mass fatality. The first mass casualty event in which rapid DNA was used for human remains identification was the 2018 campfire in California, which resulted in 85 known fatalities and burned over 150,000 acres. Parsons also discusses other multi-casualty events where rapid DNA analysis was used due to the remains being too severely burned or otherwise degraded. The use of rapid DNA for investigative leads is one of the most common ways that it is being employed. In order to use rapid DNA technology, law enforcement officers should have adequate training in collecting samples in the field or triage samples for processing at a later time. Parsons also clarifies that for rapid DNA profiles to be eligible for CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) upload, they must be sourced from a buccal swab, collected and processed at an approved booking station or accredited DNA laboratory. Drawbacks discussed include the buccal swabs requirement for CODIS eligibility, the comparatively expensive cost per sample for rapid DNA analysis, the low number of samples that can be processed simultaneously, and training requirements for data interpretation.
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