20 October 2006

DNA technology

I'm continually amazed about how DNA sequencing has (1) revolutionized the forensic science field, and (2) become so commonplace now. And yet, there's limits to what it can do.

Five years after 2,749 people died in the September 11 World Trade Center attacks, families of about 1,150 victims still do not know whether their loved ones' remains were recovered.

During the excavation of the 110-story twin towers, which began the evening of the attacks and lasted for nine months, about 20,000 pieces of human remains were found. The DNA in thousands of those pieces, many small enough to slip into a test tube, was too damaged by heat, humidity and time to yield matches in the many tests forensic scientists have tried over the years.

The city told victims' families last year that it was putting the project of making identifications on hold, possibly for years, until new DNA technology was developed.

That's a shame, that even thought they started work on recovering remains the very same day, still by the time they got to lots of it, it had been too long and the evidence was too damaged to positively identify much of it. And it continues to amaze me that they can then just put all the evidence on ice and wait until technology catches up to where they are now! It reminds me of "corpsicles," people cryogenically freezing themselves at the instant of death, hoping for a future reprieve of their illness.

I wonder if there's a way that the identification of these remains can go "open source," such as creating a SETI@Home-type project that runs automatically on your computer, or a Stardust@Home where humans volunteer their time to perform simple easily-trained tasks that will progress towards the final goal, or even just making all the data public domain and letting people try whatever they want with it, like HST or Spitzer data are public.

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