On Tuesday, a new victim of the 9/11 terror attack in New York City was identified because of advancements in DNA technology.
A total of 2,996 people died in the attack 16 years ago, more than 2,600 of them killed at the site of the World Trade Centre in New York.
Hundreds of victims were buried in the rubble of the world-famous Twin Towers, beyond the reach of rescue workers, and efforts to identify them have been ongoing for the past 16 years.
Forensic scientists have been working to piece together roughly 21,900 pieces of DNA, a fiendishly difficult project made even harder by the effects of heat, bacteria, and jet fuel. According to Forensic Magazine, the combination of factors at the World Trade Centre promoted extensive decomposition of bodies and degradation of DNA, a nightmare for those trying to identify the victims.
To get round this unique combination of problems, the New York Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) has been extracting the base DNA from bones and other remnants, before comparing this trace matter to the DNA of potential family members.
This technique is based on a system crated by a man called Tom Bode, called “BodePlex.” It allows scientists to conduct Short Tandem Repeat (STR) analysis – where specific loci, or genes, are compared to those on two or more samples – on smaller fragments of DNA.
This system was successful when it was first used in 2001, and has since been harnessed with technology from an outside company called Gene Codes Genetics, which has created software to match DNA profiles. This eventually resulted in the creation of the Mass Fatality Identification System (MFISIS), which became the standard technology used in such situations due to its capability to process large quantities of data and directly match DNA samples.
Two other packages - DNAView and the Mass Disaster Kinship Analysis Program (MDKAP), which highlights different types of genes – are used to cover anything the MFISIS might have missed. This technology has been continually updated over the years to optimise performance, although it remains unclear how exactly it advanced in order to identify the latest victim.
The OCME has a monumental task. It has to coordinate all findings and data recorded by both software developers and any laboratories involved in the investigation. It has to integrate new and updated software, send and store DNA samples, as well as decide the relevant criteria for a positive identification. If a match were to occur, representatives of the body would be required to arrange a meeting with the victim’s family and manage appropriate public relations.
According to a National Institute of Justice report by a writer called Nancy Ritter, nothing in the history of “mass-fatality events” could have ever prepared the forensic community of America for the work in identifying people who died in the World Trade Centre on 9/11.
But work to shine light on the rubble continues, sixteen years after the event, and the possibility remains that all victims will one day be identified.