The chest X-ray photo of a 30-years-old healthy man.
The chest X-ray photo of a 30-years-old healthy man.

Forensics, DNA, and Identifying Missing Soldiers

Doctoroftcm, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
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About This Episode

How do you identify human remains? On this episode, Neil deGrasse Tyson and comic co-host Chuck Nice explore DNA and the task to identify the remains of fallen soldiers with biomedical scientist Tim McMahon and forensic anthropologist Franklin Damann. What is the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency?  

How do you collect and process DNA for identification? Learn about the Department of Defense’s mission to recover and identify remains from past wars from the Director of DNA operations Tim McMahon. How has 23andMe helped identify these fallen soldiers? You’ll learn about collecting DNA out of osteocytes, investigative genetic genealogy, and DNA magnets. What are other applications for DNA research? What are the main differences between nuclear and mitochondrial DNA? Is it really easier to extract ancient Neanderthal DNA than a more recent sample? 

Next, we speak with Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s Deputy Laboratory Director, Franklin Damann. Find out how they process the remains aboard the USS Oklahoma. How do you sift through so many commingled bones? We discuss exhuming remains and what this project has done for the families of these missing soldiers. Is there any other valuable information learned from these identifications? What is the best environment for recovery? How big of a sample do you need to get enough DNA for identification?

How many missing and unidentified soldiers are there? How is artificial intelligence used to help identification? How do you identify 13,000 individual bones? What is the clavicle method? All that, plus, we explore the “CSI effect” and how projects like these get many scientists and world governments to collaborate.

Thanks to our Patrons Jon Scherer, Thibault Deckers, Jimmy Jam, Evan Cooper, Barnato, Justin Ross, James Nichols, Lori, Emilie Talles, and Roy Slettbakk for supporting us this week.

NOTE: StarTalk+ Patrons can watch or listen to this entire episode commercial-free.



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