Identification - DNA
What is DNA?
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the molecule found in cells throughout our bodies, including our blood, skin, hair and bones. Our DNA is passed down to us from our parents; we in turn pass our DNA onto our children. DNA is shared between both close and distant relatives. DNA has been successfully used for many years to identify missing people, including soldiers from historical battles. Different types of DNA methods are used to identify people including mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and Y chromosome DNA (Y-STRs.)
What is Mitochondrial DNA?
MtDNA is maternally inherited. This means a mother will pass on her mtDNA to her children. All female children will pass the same MtDNA to their children and so on. Distant relatives from the same maternal line will have the same mtDNA.
What is Y Chromosome DNA?
Short sections of DNA on the male Y chromosome, called short tandem repeats (referred to as Y-STRs), can also be used to help identify missing soldiers. Y-STRs are paternally inherited. This means a father will pass on Y-STR DNA to his sons. His sons will then pass the same Y-STR DNA to their sons and so on. Distant relatives from the same paternal line will have the same Y-STR DNA.
How is DNA used in the identification process?
If remains are recovered that are believed to be those of a missing Australian soldier, a small portion of bone is collected and sent to a laboratory for DNA testing. The DNA profile from the bone will be compared to all family reference DNA profiles contained in UWC-A's secure database. Thorough quality control checks are performed on the DNA results, as well as on other forensic information and records. The case is then reviewed before identity is confirmed and the family is notified.
Is DNA always used in the identification process?
DNA samples are taken from each set of remains in the hope that that they will produce viable profiles for the Y and Mitochondrial DNA. This assists in the search for paternal and maternal descendents. The type of DNA found in the remains can degrade over time and occasionally we are unable to obtain a usable sample.
Are there limitations to the lab tests?
The testing laboratories we utilise, and the scientific techniques they use are world class. Despite the best efforts of our experts, sometimes we cannot obtain DNA profiles from the bone samples. In some cases, the DNA is too degraded and there is not enough DNA available in the bones to extract for successful testing. There is also the possibility that we may not have an appropriate family reference sample available to compare the retrieved DNA against, thereby preventing identification.
If I have provided a DNA sample, how long will it take to recover my missing relative?
The process of locating and recovering remains is a complicated, lengthy, ongoing task. It may be a number of years after you have donated your DNA family reference sample that the missing Australian soldier in your family is recovered. Unfortunately, there is also the possibility that despite robust investigation we will be unable to locate a set of remains.
What is the process for taking DNA family reference samples from family members?
Our project teams work closely with families who have registered a link with a missing soldier to develop family trees and identify potentially suitable donors. Those identified from their position in the family tree are then invited to provide a DNA family reference sample. The process of family tree creation is critical because DNA analysis is only effective if we are sampling a suitable donor with a legitimate genetic link.
It is very important to research your family tree to confirm genetic relationships between yourself, other family members and the missing soldier from your family. If there is a mistake in the genetic relationships, it will prevent us from making a DNA identification and may falsely exclude the missing soldier from your family.
If you, or a living person in your family has a maternal link (through mtDNA) or paternal link (through Y-STRs) to a missing Australian soldier, a DNA family reference sample could be helpful to us. In order to ensure the accuracy of the sampling at least two appropriate family members should provide DNA reference samples. The project team will work with you to determine the most suitable family members.
How is DNA collected?
The DNA collection of family reference samples is free and does not involve blood or needles and is quick and painless. The DNA collection uses a soft swab to gently remove cheek cells from inside your mouth. Details are stored on a secure database and your DNA will only be used to assist in identifying missing soldiers.
Other Resources on DNA
The Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA - our American counterpart) also has a comprehensive range of DNA FAQs on its website. Click here.