Forensics

How plants could help forensic scientists find human remains

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In Eastern Tennessee, a group of researchers tend to a plot of land called the “Body Farm.”

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The 1.3 acre “farm” at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility functions as an outdoor lab, enabling scientists to study how human remains affect soil microbes and plants.

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The lab's mission is to help improve forensic science, especially efforts in searching for missing people.

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In the United States, 10,000 people go missing every year, the researchers note. Searches are often hindered by rough landscapes like forests.

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But human bodies, when in the soil, can alter the soil microbes and plant-life. These traces could help authorities locate remains.

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For instance, our bodies contain molecules called metabolites. Researchers at the Body Farm are studying how metabolites change the appearance of plants, like the color or reflectance of leaves.

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Chemicals from decomposing bodies may also influence what species of plants grow in that area. Plants that are more sensitive to changes in soil conditions may stop growing there, for example, while heartier, more adaptable plants might take over.

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The researchers hope that their work will give authorities more tools with which to look for missing people.

Read more about the “forensic botanists” here.

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