Just as the genomics community has sprung into action when confronted with tragedy in the past — like identifying victims of 9/11 through elaborate DNA testing and helping to determine the spread of the SARS coronavirus in early 2003 — now scientists in the field are hard at work bringing their research to bear on the tsunami-ravaged regions of south Asia.
At press time, reports of an ever-growing death toll from the waves started by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that hit on Dec. 26 of last year put high-end estimates around 225,000 across the 12 affected countries. Like those dead in New York’s World Trade Center disaster, victims of the tsunami were often difficult to identify, requiring DNA analysis.
By the end of December, representatives of the Beijing Genome Institute had volunteered to test DNA samples both from the bodies found and from relatives of missing foreigners to try to find matches. The Chinese team of five experts, led by Yajun Deng, headed to Bangkok to identify victims in Thailand, where more than 5,000 people perished. The BGI had established a DNA working group and plans for sample collection, expecting to be able to run 5,000 DNA samples daily.
For those hundreds of victims most difficult to identify, sequence analysis firm Sorensen Genomics of Salt Lake City, Utah, and partner Pacific Rim Consulting are donating their services to the government of Thailand. “Many of these bodies are so far along in the decomposition process that their identity cannot be clearly established without advanced DNA analysis,” says Lars Mouritsen, chief scientific officer at Sorensen Genomics. While the BGI handles most of the cases, Sorensen Genomics will tackle the tougher ones. Sorensen and Pacific Rim are collecting tissue and dental samples and performing DNA analysis to identify victims and match their DNA profiles to living relatives.
— Meredith Salisbury