Extracting the DNA mystery held in old bones to identify Australia's long-term missing

Associate Professor Jodie Ward, who is leading the missing persons DNA identifiaction program. Picture: AFP
Associate Professor Jodie Ward, who is leading the missing persons DNA identifiaction program. Picture: AFP

After a hiatus during the COVID lockdown period, federal police forensics specialists will reinvigorate a program which will match the DNA remains of more than 500 unidentified bodies in an attempt to determine the potential fate of Australia's long-term missing.

The huge project had a perfect trial run and case study recently through the Australian Federal Police involvement in performing the all-important Y-chromosome profiling - that which only belongs to men - to help identify the only sailor found after the sinking of HMAS Sydney II off the coast of Western Australia 80 years ago.

The sailor's decomposed body was found in a Carley float life raft off the coast of Christmas Island, three months after the sea battle. His was the only body recovered of the 654 crew who died during the greatest single Australian maritime loss of World War II.

The sailor had remained unidentified for decades. When his body was exhumed for reburial at a special memorial built in Geraldton, WA in 2006, DNA samples were taken.

DNA specialist Professor Jodie Ward examines skeletal remains at the AFP laboratory. Picture: AFP

DNA specialist Professor Jodie Ward examines skeletal remains at the AFP laboratory. Picture: AFP

That process managed to generate a mitochondrial profile - that which is from the maternal line - to trace one side of the sailor's family.

From DNA phenotyping - which involves using DNA to predict the ancestry and physical appearance of an individual - they knew he was between the ages of 21 and 31, about medium height, right-handed with blue-green eyes and most likely grew up in a coastal area due to evidence he consumed a high marine diet as a child. He also had several gold fillings, indicating he had come from a well-off family.

But the science needed to complete the process and make the positive identification didn't exist then.

It was a particular case which had long puzzled associate professor Jeremy Austin from the University of Adelaide, who specialises in ancient DNA. He would speak about it - this specific mitochondrial haplo group - in his public lectures and on one such occasion, as luck would have it, a person approached him afterwards saying that he thought he knew someone who may fit the profile.

A Queensland farmer was duly tracked down for a saliva sample.

Over 500 boxes of unidentified humans remains are held across the country. Picture: AFP

Over 500 boxes of unidentified humans remains are held across the country. Picture: AFP

This year, when the AFP lab's latest DNA capability came on line, one of the early samples run was the farmer's.

When the lab tests established the paternal link, the navy team at the Seapower Centre in Fyshwick finally connected the family tree and positively identified the sailor from ship records.

That same process is now poised to be applied to the thousands of long-term missing persons across the country in a project known as the National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons.

The program had kicked off last year under a $3.59 million allocation from proceeds of crime, but the intervention of COVID-19 pandemic travel restrictions slowed progress significantly.

Now, with the gradual easing of restrictions, the project is back on track, led by Associate Professor Jodie Ward, a forensic DNA identification specialist from the AFP's National Missing Persons Coordination Centre and the University of Technology Sydney's Centre for Forensic Science.

As macabre as it sounds, it's estimated there over 500 boxes of human remains sitting in police stations, mortuaries and forensic facilities around the country.

Some of these bones were discovered decades ago, with a portion of unidentified human remains from cold cases dating back from more than 50 years.

A national audit is being undertaken which will reveal the exact amount of remains and how many DNA reference samples from relatives exist.

"We are going to run this program for two and a half years; now we have this centralised facility with the best experts, equipment, and techniques to apply to all these remains," Prof Ward said.

"So we are now asking police across all the states and territories to audit, prioritise and submit cases to us to process."

This story Extracting the DNA mystery held in old bones to identify Australia's long-term missing first appeared on The Canberra Times.