Finding the DNA of the unknown Diggers and MIAs

Digger1They made the ultimate sacrifice for our country on the battlefields of WWI and WWII. Tragically, an estimated 35,000 of our fallen soldiers remain unidentified. Unknown but not forgotten.

Now an important partnership between the Australian Army’s Unrecovered War Casualties unit (UWC-A) and NSW Health Pathology’s Forensic Science Service is providing fresh hope for the identification of our unknown soldiers – in some cases, 100 years after they went missing in battle.

NSW Health Pathology’s forensic experts have successfully extracted DNA from remains recovered from battlefields in France and Papua New Guinea. This includes remains that are 100 years old and severely compromised.

These breakthrough results will now allow experts from UWC-A to analyse the individual genetic profiles to determine if they are Australian soldiers ahead of a wider search for possible relatives.    

The final phase of the identification process would involve inviting living relatives, no matter how distant, to donate a DNA family reference sample in a bid to match it with DNA profiles from the remains.   

Building our unknown soldiers’ genetic profiles  

Before now, identification of these remains has been impossible; in most cases due to age and level of decomposition. But the combination of expertise in remains recovery, emerging forensic science and DNA technology has resulted in a leap forward in the complex identification process. 

Experts at NSW Health Pathology’s Specialist DNA Laboratory applied intricate DNA techniques to test and analyse samples of bone and teeth from the recovered remains to help build the genetic profiles.

The first stage involved a specialised extraction procedure designed to recover DNA from compromised skeletal remains. This was followed by two further tests; one to target DNA in the mitochondria of cells and the other to target DNA exclusive to the Y chromosome in males.

Digger2This partnership forms part of a long-running campaign by UWC-A to identify our unknown soldiers. To date, they have recovered more than 300 sets of human remains believed to be Australian servicemen from all over the world.

Experts from NSW Health Pathology are honoured to be part of this immensely important work. They are committed to continuing this partnership with UWC-A to help identify our fallen soldiers for their families. 

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