In The Field

Human Genome meeting: DNA and disasters

You don’t often get to hear about the emotional side of a scientist’s work. But at today’s session on “Genetics in disasters”, researchers who helped identify victims of the 2004 asian tsunami and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center spoke about their experiences, and explained why they thought geneticists were especially affected.

Kirsty Wright, a forensic biologist from Queensland Health and Scientific Services in Australia, recounted the difficult and painstaking process of trying to piece together enough information to identify tsunami victims. The scientific obstacles were daunting: for example, bodies decomposed rapidly in the heat and the fact that the wave swept people’s homes and possessions away made it near-impossible to get identifiable samples of DNA from hairbrushes and toothbrushes to compare with samples from unidentified bodies.

But there were emotional and political pressures too. Many bereaved families found it hard to understand why it was taking so long–months, in fact–for their loved ones to be identified. Wright put this down to TV forensic cop shows giving an unrealistic impression of DNA testing–making it out to be far quicker and easier than it really is. “There was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding,” she said.

While everyone involved in the forensic effort was touched by the human tragedy of the disaster, Wright thought that the geneticists had a particularly poignant perspective, because they were the ones who got to see how entire family trees were devastated. “How do you identify a family if you only have 2 grandparents and 2 aunties?” she asked. She talked about one family that had lost 22 members, 11 of them children.

Howard Cash, president of a bioinformatics company called Gene Codes Corporation based in Michigan, was involved with the tsunami work as well as helping identify victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center atrocity. He talked about the pressures his team experienced, from outside as well as within themselves as to who to try and identify first–such as the firefighters of 9/11, or the children lost in the tsunami. They put a system in place to avoid team-members focusing on their own nationals first, he said.

But despite the disappointments and obstacles, the one theme that emerged from both talks is how people all pulled together to try and solve the problem. “Everybody wants to help,” said Cash.


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