The Sciences

Building a Better Dead Body Detector

DiscoblogBy Joseph CalamiaAug 3, 2010 7:31 PM


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It was just like an Easter egg hunt, except instead of eggs, two researchers hid dead rats. Some rats waited three inches underground. Others sat in the open. The duo also buried empty boxes--for comparison. By the end of their study, Thomas J. Bruno and Tara M. Lovestead were expert deceased rodent-hunters, and may have developed a tool to help law enforcement find buried human bodies. Bruno and Lovestead are chemists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Their body-finding tool has an aluminum needle, slightly thicker than a human hair, which they used to prick grave soil for samples from underground air pockets. Back in the lab, they sorted through those samples for rotting flesh gases, in particular one called ninhydrin-reactive nitrogen. They found that five week-old bodies gave off the most ninhydrin-reactive nitrogen, but that they could detect the gas even after twenty weeks. Their test is an improvement on more expensive means for finding dead bodies, because the device works at room temperature (previously analysis required an ultra-cold device). It also uses a chemical already available on a crime scene--forensics teams use ninhydrin reagent to pick up latent fingerprints. Though this initial study only uncovered rat bodies under soil, Bruno said that the device might even detect a human body buried under a concrete slab (after drilling a one-eighth-inch hole). A seemingly particular scenario, but for crime show and mafia movie enthusiasts an understandable one. Check out DISCOVER's new TV show, Joe Genius. Related content: Discoblog: “Gravestone Project” Takes Citizen Science to the Cemetery Discoblog: How Long Would It Take a Physics Lecture to Actually Kill You? Discoblog: DNA Test Solves the Mystery of Copernicus’s Remains Discoblog: Decapitated, Lion-Chewed Remains = Ancient Gladiator Graveyard

Image: flickr / Jay Malone

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