Superstars of STEM: Helping bones reveal their names

Jodie Ward is finding new ways to identify human remains, and solving the mystery of the missing. Dion Pretorius reports.

Jodie Ward examining a bone, and closing in on the identity of a missing person.
Jodie Ward examining a bone, and closing in on the identity of a missing person.

There are 2000 long-term missing persons in Australia, leaving countless families with unanswered questions. However, due to advances in DNA techniques, it is estimated that up to 500 sets of human remains could soon be identified decades after their death.

These bones have the potential to unlock a quarter of the country’s missing person cases.

The challenge that forensic scientists face in their quest is that some bones are very old or have suffered extreme environmental conditions through exposed to fire, submerged in water or buried in the tropics. This makes them unidentifiable using routine DNA tests.

However, with researchers pushing the boundaries of DNA testing, there might soon be resolution for some long-term unsolved cases.

Jodie Ward is working to identify some of the most challenging human remains at New South Wales Health Pathology’s Specialist DNA Laboratory – the first facility of its kind in the state, and pioneered by Ward. Ward takes a collaborative approach and works with agency partners such as NSW Police to help provide some resolution to families with a loved one missing.

As a Churchill Fellow, she travelled the world to bring back new practices to improve forensic DNA techniques in Australia. Ward now oversees cases ranging from using toenail DNA to confirm the identity of decomposed remains, to exploiting genetic differences between humans and animals to analyse hair evidence found at homicide scenes.

One of her latest developments has been to combine all the DNA extraction lessons she learned from laboratories across the globe. This includes the complex process of completely dissolving bone powder and ensuring all DNA preserved in the bone matrix of compromised skeletal remains is recovered.

Ward and her team have used this technique to recover DNA from historical Australian Aboriginal remains suspected to be close to 1000 years old, as well as those of Australian soldiers who have lain beneath World War I battlefields in Europe for 100 years.

Depending on the case, the nuclear Y chromosome or mitochondrial DNA can be profiled and matched to other samples on a DNA database, or compared to reference samples, such as genetic material gleaned from a missing person’s toothbrush or DNA donated by relatives.

To date, the service has identified more than 30 previously unnamed individuals, including helping to solve one of Tasmania’s oldest missing person cases.

Ward is experimenting with new DNA intelligence tools to assist in determining the identity of skeletal remains. For example, an approach known as forensic DNA phenotyping can predict the ancestry and physical appearance of an individual, giving strong clues to hair, eye and skin colour. This information could be useful in shortlisting candidate missing persons, or for facial reconstructions.

“My Fellowship has inspired my latest, and I think one of my most important projects, which involves working towards a national DNA identification service for unknown and missing persons,” she says.

“Scientists would be able to apply the latest DNA technologies to archived human remains, offering them the best chance for identification.

“Every day, the DNA in these bones continues to degrade – and I am determined to make a difference to the lives of Australian families with missing loved ones and bring them some resolution after all this time.”

Jodie Ward is among 30 Superstars of STEM featured in this weekly series. To learn more about the program, visit the Science & Technology Australia website.

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