What Happens to a Dead Body in the Ocean?

October 30th, 2014

Deep-sea scavengers made quick work of this pig's carcass. Credit: VENUS/Gail Anderson and Lynne Bell

When a dead body decomposes in the ocean, scientists know little about what happens to it. To find out, some researchers performed an unusual experiment that involved dropping pig carcasses into the sea and watching them on video.

Lots of human bodies end up in the sea, whether due to accidents, suicides or from being intentionally dumped there, but nobody really knows what happens to them, said Gail Anderson, a forensic entomologist at Simon Fraser University in Canada who led the unusual study.

Anderson and her team got a chance to find out, using the Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea (VENUS), an underwater laboratory that allows scientists to take video and other measurements via the Internet. With that equipment, all they needed was a body. [See Video of Ocean Scavengers Eating the Dead Pigs]

“Pigs are the best models for humans,” Anderson told Live Science. They’re roughly the right size for a human body; they have the same kind of gut bacteria, and they’re relatively hairless, she said.

In the study, published Oct. 20 in the journal PLOS ONE, Anderson and her team used a remotely operated submarine to drop three pig carcasses into the Saanich Inlet, a body of salt water near Vancouver Island, British Columbia, at a depth of 330 feet (100 meters).

The researchers monitored what happened to the pig bodies using the live VENUS cameras, which they could control from anywhere with an Internet connection, and sensors that could measure oxygen levels, temperature, pressure, salinity and other factors. At the end of the study, the scientists collected the bones for further examination.

It didn’t take long for scavengers to find the pigs. Shrimp, Dungeness crabs and squat lobsters all arrived and started munching on the bodies; a shark even came to feed on one of the pig corpses. Scavengers ate the first two bodies down to the bones within a month, but they took months to pick the third one clean.

The third body likely took so much longer due to the levels of oxygen in the water, the researchers found.

The Saanich Inlet is a low-oxygen environment, and has no oxygen during some times of the year, Anderson said. When the researchers dropped the first two pigs into the water, the oxygen levels were about the same, but when scientists dropped the third body in, the levels were lower.

The big scavengers (Dungeness crab and shrimp) need more oxygen to smaller creatures like the squat lobsters. But the smaller animals’ mouths aren’t strong enough to break the skin of the pigs. So as long as the carcass entered the water when oxygen conditions were tolerable, the larger animals would feed, opening the bodies up for smaller critters and the squat lobsters, Anderson said. But when oxygen was low, the larger animals didn’t come, and the smaller animals couldn’t feed.

“Now we have a very good idea of how bodies break down underwater,” Anderson said. This kind of research helps solve mysteries such as the “floating feet” found wearing running shoes that have washed up along the West Coast in recent years. In fact, it’s quite normal for ocean scavengers to gnaw off feet, and the running shoes simply make the body parts float, Anderson said.

Knowing how bodies degrade in the ocean can give rescue divers a sense of what to look for, as well as manage the expectations of family members of those lost at sea, Anderson said.

SOURCE: This article was first published by Live Science on 28 October 2014 and written by Tanya Lewis – http://www.livescience.com/48480-what-happens-to-dead-body-in-ocean.html

Highlights from ISHI25, Phoenix, Arizona and SFO, USA

October 20th, 2014

Vanessa Lynch outside the Californian Dept. of Justice Forensci DNA Lab, follwoing a tour of the facility and a presentation

Vanessa Lynch outside the Californian Dept. of Justice Forensic DNA Lab, following a tour of the facility and a presentation.

It is hard to believe that almost three weeks have passed since I set off for the USA where I was so unbelievably lucky to have attended and presented at the 25th International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI25) in Phoenix, Arizona as well as visit and present at two significant Forensic Science Labs in San Francisco, CA.

Thank you to both Promega and Thermo Fisher for providing me with this amazing opportunity.

At any given time, I honestly felt that I needed to pinch myself to assure myself that I was not dreaming! Not only did I meet renowned international leaders in the field of forensic DNA technology, but I learned so much about how and why different administrations treat the collection and retention of DNA profiles in the way that they do.

In so doing, I was able to gain greater perspective on what we are doing in South Africa, where we are in keeping with the advances in this technology and where sadly, we are still falling way, way behind. I say this because whilst we are still fighting for our DNA Act to become operational, and have just moved from sequencing 10 to 16 loci for our forensic DNA profiles, the rest of the world with developed DNA Databases, are using 24 loci and talking about implementing New Generation Sequencing – with this platform, and I quote (!), “there is increased interpretation of degraded DNA because SNPs can theoretically be amplified with as little as 50-70 nucleotide long amplicons instead of the longer amplicons needed for STRs.” Click here to read more if this excites you!

Vanessa Lynch with John Butler, author of Advanced Topics in Forensic DNA Typing: Interpretation. His 1st edition of Forensic DNA Typing, published in 2001, quickly established itself as the gold-standard reference for the field. Over the next ten years, the vast amount of new information uncovered has resulted in this new volume.

Vanessa Lynch with John Butler, author of Advanced Topics in Forensic DNA Typing: Interpretation. His 1st edition of Forensic DNA Typing, published in 2001, quickly established itself as the gold-standard reference for the field. Over the next ten years, the vast amount of new information uncovered has resulted in this new volume.

For an overview of the ISHI conference and what was presented, please read the below summary by Terri Sundquist, which also happens to briefly mention my presentation…

“I was one of almost 1,000 people who attended the 25th International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI25) in Phoenix, Arizona. This scientific meeting brings together DNA analysts from forensic and paternity labs, research scientists and others with an interest in DNA-based identification to learn about new technologies, policy and process changes, and current and future trends in DNA typing. There were so many great presentations and learning opportunities, how do I pick just a few of them to highlight?”

To read more, please click here http://www.promegaconnections.com/highlights-from-ishi25/

On a lighter note, two conversations which I found somewhat bemusing, were the ones I had with the Forensic Scientists from the Singapore and Chinese DNA Forensic Labs respectively.

The first conversation, with Singapore, revolved around the Oscar Pistoruis Trial: I was simply told that in Singapore, Mr Pistorius would now be dead – for the simple reason that it is illegal to own a firearm in Singapore, and if found to have one in your possession, it is life imprisonment. If anyone discharges a firearm, even accidentally, into the floor, it is the death sentence. It is no wonder that when I asked the scientist from Singapore how many criminal cases they deal with a year, the answer was : no more than 20 – per year!

New Generation Sequencing....

New Generation Sequencing....

The other conversation that left my jaw dropping, was with the Chinese scientist. This scientist correctly deduced that our number of arrestees and convicted offenders per annum is going to far outweigh our laboratory capacity, (especially at the start of the new DNA Act’s implementation) and accordingly suggested that we send samples to China to be processed because they can process as many as 800,000 samples per month — compare this to our anticipated capacity of approximately around 34,000 per month!

On that note, let’s not forget that our Minister of Police, Mr Nkosinathi Nhleko, has not yet declared our DNA Act to be operational nor has the appointment of the National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board been appointed — two critical factors which inhibit the implementation of the new DNA Act. If we are not taking samples from arrestees and convicted offenders, that means we are not loading profiles onto our DNA Database. It is no longer a question of whether a DNA Database is a valuable criminal intelligence tool — it is a given and the use and successes of Forensic DNA Databases are undisputed worldwide.

Unlike in Singapore, in South Africa, we probably have  20 criminal cases happening per minute, which is why the urgent operational date of this Act needs to be declared.

We have the tools, now let’s get on with the business of using those tools! Please Mr Minister - this ought to be a top priority on your agenda.

Vanessa Lynch

Thank you OSF-SA

October 17th, 2014

Yesterday I submitted our final progress report to the Open Society Foundation for South Africa [OSF-SA]. This brings to a close 7 years of funding and support we have received from the OSF-SA since 2007.


The OSF-SA first contacted me on the 3rd October 2007 following a programme on Carte Blanche which highlighted the work we were doing and what we were trying to achieve in SA. The then Programme Director of the Criminal Justice Initiative of the OSF-SA ,  having watched the programme, sent me the following email:

“Dear Vanessa

The Open Society Foundation for South Africa (OSF-SA) is a grant making organisation based in Cape Town (www.osf.org.za). The goal of the Criminal Justice Initiative (CJI) as a programme of the Foundation is to build accountability within the criminal justice system with the intention of ensuring a more humane, efficient and accountable criminal justice process as a whole. To this end, the CJI provides funding to a range of NGO’s working in the field of criminal justice.

While we can give no guarantees of financial support at this stage, we would be very interested in hearing more about the DNA Project and its work. If you are interested in setting up an initial exploratory meeting with us, please give me a call or send me an e-mail.

Kind regards

Well, the rest as they say, is history. Following a meeting the next week with the OSF-SA and after drafting and submitting my first funding application on behalf of the DNA Project on the 19th October 2007, The OSF-SA provided The DNA Project with a development grant for R43 000 on the 3rd December 2007. This grant was our first official funding grant ever received and allowed the DNA Project to get off the ground and start fulfilling its objectives. Since that time, the OSF-SA has provided continuous assistance to our organisation by supporting the following initiatives:

• Developing our Post Graduate Honours Degree in Forensic Analysis;
• Lobbying Government to pass the DNA Act;
• Attending the Interpol DNA User’s Conference in Lyon in both 2010 and 2013;
• Producing and distributing DNA and Crime Scene Awareness Material throughout SA;
• Creating training protocols for DNA and crime scene awareness workshops;
• Hosting national DNA and Crime Scene Awareness Workshops amongst first on crime scene responders and the general public;
• Funding the operational costs of the organisation such as audit fees, support staff salaries and travel;
• Developing the website;
• Hosting a series of Legal workshops for officers of the court to ensure DNA’s optimal use in the criminal justice system;
• Registering a series of training materials and workshops with SASSETA for the DNA and crime scene awareness training protocols have developed;
• Publishing a paper for the CJI Occasional Paper Series on Forensic DNA Profiling.

May we take this opportunity to thank the OSF-SA for helping us to pursue and fulfil our stated objectives to date. Whilst our work is by no means over, their unconditional support of our organisation and the continued trust and belief they have shown in the work that we have done since 2007, has carried us through some of the most groundbreaking and challenging years we have faced in our efforts to maximise the use of DNA profiling in South Africa to help resolve crime.

with heartfelt appreciation and thanks from,

Vanessa Lynch and the rest of  The DNA Project Team.

Draft of forensic DNA regulations published for public comment

October 14th, 2014

Under Section 15AD of the South African Police Service Act, draft regulations outlining how the South African Police Service (SAPS) will be allowed to take DNA samples from suspects have been drawn up in terms of Section 6 of the Criminal Law (Forensic Procedures) Amendment Act of 2013 [the "DNA ACT"].

These draft regulations were published on the 9th of October 2014 in Government Gazette 38074 for public comment.

All interested parties have been invited to comment on the draft regulations within 21 days of the publication – i.e. by no later than the 30th of October 2014.

Comments must be made in writing and directed to:

Brigadier M van Rooyen
Legal Services: Governance, Policy and Legislation Management
South African Police Service

E-mail address: vanrooyenmsaps.gov.za

Fax number: (012) 393 7098

Street address:
Room No. 311
3rd Floor
Presidia Building
255 Pretorius Street
Cr. Paul Kruger and Pretorius Street

To view a PDF copy of Government Gazette 38074, please click here.

To view a PDF summary of the DNA Act, please click here.

Once the submissions have been received and considered, the draft regulations will be submitted to the Minister of Police for approval.

The draft regulations focus on, inter alia:

  • The taking of a buccal sample;
  • The keeping of records in respect of collected buccal and crime scene samples;
  • Preservation and timely transfer of collected samples to the Forensic Science Laboratory;
  • Conducting of comparative searches;
  • Communication of forensic DNA findings and related information;
  • DNA examinations conducted at the Forensic Science Laboratories;
  • Request for access to information stored on the NFDD;
  • Follow-up of forensic investigative leads;
  • Destruction of buccal samples;
  • Notification of court findings;
  • Removal of forensic DNA profiles from the NFDD;
  • Protocols and training relating to familial searches;
  • Complaints to the Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board;
  • Reports;
  • Information technology infrastructure and systems; and
  • Requests for removal of DNA profiles.

Forensic Science: Myth vs Fact

October 9th, 2014

Crime Scene Investigation

Myth: A single investigator trained in forensics can collect and analyze all evidence from a crime scene.

Fact: Crime scene investigation and analysis requires a team of knowledgeable experts to collect and process evidence. Because of their training and expertise, investigators and analysts tend to specialize in a particular forensic discipline such as fingerprints, firearms or DNA analysis. The process is tedious and time‐consuming because investigators must collect all possible evidence without knowing in advance what is relevant to an investigation. In a separate step, only highly trained laboratory‐based analysts from various disciplines can conclusively examine crime scene evidence and report their findings.

Alternate Light Source (ALS)

Myth: With a blue light, investigators can detect the presence of blood at a crime scene.

Fact: While television programs often depict the use of a special light to detect blood at a crime scene, the use of Luminol alone in a dark room without special lighting allows visual detection of the presence of blood. Other bodily fluids, such as saliva and semen, become fluorescent under an ALS.

DNA Analysis

Myth: Advanced DNA analysis automatically identifies an individual within minutes.

Fact: DNA analysis takes several hours for even simple cases, although a laboratory typically takes 30 days or more to complete DNA testing. In addition, the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) stores no personal data with its 7.5 million records. To confirm identity, analysts search other databases containing information about convicted offenders, unsolved crimes and missing persons at the local, state and national levels. For more information, visit www.dna.gov/dnadatabases/codis.

Drugs and Explosives Testing

Myth: A trained crime scene investigator can usually identify an unknown powder by sight, smell or taste.

Fact: Contrary to television portrayals, crime scene specialists never taste an unknown substance to determine its composition because of the danger posed by the potential presence of poisons. Instead, investigators are armed with hand‐held, portable kits to conduct preliminary, presumptive testing of unknown powders in the field. Only confirmatory analysis with sophisticated instrumentation can conclusively determine the components of a sample powder submitted as part of an investigation.

Digital Evidence

Myth: The Internet Protocol (IP) address can identify who sent an e‐mail.

Fact: An IP address is analogous to a telephone number. While both numbers are uniquely assigned, investigators can determine only the person who pays for the IP address or telephone number by using public records and the legal process. Whether tracking an IP address to a public access router or to a private home, investigators still need to use old‐fashioned police work to place a suspect “at the keyboard.”


Myth: You can always match a bullet with the gun that fired it.

Fact: The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) maintains the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network (NIBIN), which allows law enforcement agencies to scan and compare digital images of the firearm markings on bullets and cartridge casings. However, if a gun has been modified after firing or if the bullet is badly damaged, the bullet will no longer match the barrel and a link cannot be confirmed. Frequently, cartridge casings provide more information than the actual bullet fired.

SOURCE: National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) – www.nfstc.org

What is Forensic Toxicology?

October 2nd, 2014

The field of forensic science has come a long way – this is particularly true in the area of forensic toxicology, which is both fascinating and important for many applications. Forensic toxicology deals with the investigation of toxic substances, environmental chemicals or poisonous products. If you have ever been asked to take a drug test for work or you know someone who has, then you are already familiar with one of the applications of forensic toxicology. The toxicology part refers to the methods used to study these substances. Forensic toxicology is actually a bit of a mix of many other scientific disciplines such as chemistry, pathology and biochemistry. It also shares ties with some of the environmental sciences.

Using Forensic Toxicology Today

Forensic toxicologists perform toxicology screens, which involve looking for unusual chemicals in the body.

Currently, this area of forensics has evolved to mean the study of illegal drugs and legal ones such as alcohol. Forensic toxicology can even identify poisons and hazardous chemicals. The chemical makeup of each substance is studied and they are also identified from different sources such as urine or hair. Forensic toxicology deals with the way that substances are absorbed, distributed or eliminated in the body – the metabolism of substances. When learning about drugs and how they act in the body, forensic toxicology will study where the drug affects the body and how this occurs.

Obtaining Samples for Toxicology Testing

Before toxicology testing can go forward, samples need to be taken. You might be surprised to know just how many parts of your body can produce samples that are effective for identifying drugs. One example is urine, which is commonly used in forensic toxicology. It’s an easy sample to obtain and relatively rapid and non-invasive. It can show substances even several weeks after their ingestion. One example would be the drug marijuana, which can be detected even two weeks following use of the drug. When a urine sample is taken, however, there are sometimes rules and regulations around how the sample is collected. If the testing was related to workplace drug testing, a person could substitute a sample from someone else that would then show a negative result. For this reason, there are sometimes parameters around reasonable supervision when a person has to provide a urine sample.

Blood samples are another body sample used for forensic toxicology. A huge range of toxic substances can be tested from a blood sample. You may already be familiar with blood alcohol testing used to assess if a person was driving under the influence of alcohol. This type of testing is important in assessing if a driver is above the legal limit and it is also used to prove a case in court.

Hair samples are a good way to test for substance abuse that has occurred over the long-term. After a person ingests a chemical, it ends up in the hair, where it can provide forensic toxicologists with an estimate of the intensity and duration of drug use. Hair testing is even offered quite widely by companies that allow you to mail in a hair sample and check off the drugs you want checked. Saliva is another way that forensic toxicologists can test for drugs. It does, however, depend on the drug in terms of identifying its concentration. One of the more unusual sounding but interesting ways that the human body can be used for forensic toxicology involves the gastric contents in a deceased person. During the autopsy, a sample of the person’s gastric contents can be analysed, which then allows the forensic toxicologist to assess if the person took any pills or liquids before their death. The brain, liver and spleen can even be used during toxicology testing.

Forensic Toxicology Applications

While there are many uses for forensic toxicology testing, the most familiar one to most people is likely to be drug and alcohol testing. This type of testing is commonly performed in the transportation industry and in workplaces. Another use is for drug overdoses, whether these are intended or accidental. People who drive with a blood alcohol concentration over the accepted legal limit can also be assessed through toxicology testing. Another application of forensic toxicology relates to sexual assault that involves the use of drugs. Various drugs are used today for the purposes of rendering the victim unable to fight the attacker, who then proceeds to sexually assault the victim. Through toxicology testing, a victim can find out what drug was given and can then be treated accordingly.

There are a lot of substances and poisons in our world – many of which impact how we function in work and society. For some people, these substances can influence their death. Fortunately, forensic toxicology testing allows forensic scientists to identify substances and determine a pattern of use. In this way, a forensic toxicologist can provide closure on the ‘what if’ of a person’s drug habits or perhaps some mystery surrounding their death.

This article first appeared on Explore Forensics on the 4th of September 2014 and was authored by Ian Murnaghan – BSc (hons), MSc.

ISHI25 – International Symposium on Human Identification 2014

September 23rd, 2014

The annual International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI) conference, which is being held in Phoenix, Arizona in the US from Sept 29 – Oct 2, 2014, is an event that the DNA Project is very excited about as our founder Vanessa Lynch joins this year’s lineup of invited guest speakers.

The ISHI is an annual international conference for the DNA forensic community that provides the opportunity to learn, share and network amongst industry peers and experts.

Vanessa’s presentation on the 1st of October entitled “The DNA Project: The Crusade to Bring a National Forensic DNA Database to Fight Crime in South Africa” will include discussing the challenges in campaigning to pass the DNA Act in South Africa, some of its salient provisions and how she plans to continue to campaign for its effective implementation in conjunction with a national crime scene awareness programme driven by the DNA Project.

A map outlining the various delegates' hometowns.

Delegates from across the globe will be in attendance to listen to a wide range of topics presented by expert speakers across the 3-day conference. Topics such as:




We hope to provide our followers with updates on all the happenings at the conference via Facebook and Twitter… so keep a watchful eye out!

We wish Vanessa a wonderful trip and the very best with her presentation =)

To learn more about the ISHI conference, please visit their website: http://ishinews.com/

A message from our amazing Funders: Change a Life

September 19th, 2014

Dear Change a Lifer

Every year in September, we get together for this event – great people, fantastic camaraderie, huge commitment – it is truly amazing. And then you realize that we have done this seven times and by the time we hand out the money from this tour, we will have given R25m to our project owners and their projects, and those feelings of amazement really become quite overwhelming.

It makes me extremely proud to be a small part of this – as I know it does for all of you.

In whatever capacity you contributed – as a cyclist, a sponsor, a member of the incredibly dedicated support crew – and so many of you have more than one role – it is your commitment that has made this Mystery Masquerade Tour yet another huge success for Change a Life.

This commitment is best demonstrated by the supreme efforts of the MTB team on the last day – 12 hours in the saddle – 255 Ks. Quite exceptional.

It’s the consistency of your support, however, that demonstrates the loyalty to Change a life – in whatever capacity you participate. So many of you were back again. The support crew epitomise this with many examples of dedication of which I will mention just two: Raymond Tloubatla, an ex‑Computershare employee, took leave from his new employer just to be with us and Wayne Fillis, whose only connection is that he is a friend of one of our employees, did likewise.

And when it comes to talking about loyalty and consistent commitment, what about Jonathan Scott? He gives so much of himself and his time in ensuring that we all have an exceptional experience.  He is always available and gives so much more than determining the route – he gets involved in every aspect of putting the Tour together; his knowledge and advice are absolutely invaluable.

Vanessa Lynch giving "Change a Lifers" feedback at a past event

Vanessa Lynch giving "Change a Lifers" feedback at a past event

We have now completed two-thirds of the seventh tour with the most important element – the report back – still to come. We look forward to seeing you all again at our next family gathering in about six weeks’ time when our project owners bring us up to date on the progress they have made.

On behalf of Ursula and myself, Change a Life and the Mike Thomson Change a Life Trust, our dedicated project owners and all the people whose lives they are changing – a most sincere thank you for your generous participation in the seventh Change a Life Cycle Tour and for the loyal support you all continue to give us.

We are making a difference!

Stan and Ursula

30 years of DNA fingerprinting

September 18th, 2014

Sir Alex holding a copy of the first DNA profile.

In 1984, Alec Jeffreys discovered the technique of genetic fingerprinting in a laboratory in the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester.

30 years later that discovery has proved to be not just something for human identification but ‘identification’ period.

DNA Fingerprinting and subsequently DNA Profiling has revolutionised the field of Forensic Science and also the way paternity and immigration disputes are resolved.

Fascinating interview with Prof Sir Alec Jeffreys – University of Leicester.

Change a Life Masquerade Cycle Tour 2014

September 12th, 2014

The Mike Thomson Change a Life Trust, launched by Computershare in 2008, is one of the DNA Project’s most generous sponsors which is dedicated to a peaceful future for all South Africans.

Change a Life’s primary fundraiser is an annual Change a Life Cycle Tour and the 2014 Masquerade Cycle Tour, scheduled to take place from 13 to 18 September, promises to be one of their most dramatic tours yet.

In keeping with the exclusive luxury and pampering our high profile executive cyclists have become accustomed to, the 2014 tour is designed around the fabulous Rovos Rail – rated one of the world’s top 25 trains – which will provide quality accommodation and transport between the stages.

Without giving too much away, Change a Life confirms that the four day 500 km cycle tour starting in the beautiful Western Cape will more than fulfil their participants’ expectations of an extreme challenge, while the après cycle experiences will be filled with all the drama and intrigue of a masquerade ball.

We wish all of the participants a wonderful and enjoyable ride!