Missing Persons Investigations

200618 DNA Lab 016NSW Health Pathology’s Forensic & Analytical Science Service provides independent analysis to NSW Police to assist with missing persons investigations that require the examination of unidentified human remains. Our experts include DNA specialists, forensic pathologists, anthropologists, and dental specialists.

This complex work often includes the recovery and profiling of DNA from human skeletal remains that are decades old and highly compromised by environmental exposure. The techniques used to recover DNA profiles from challenging skeletal remains have improved significantly in recent years, including the development of more sensitive DNA profiling kits.

The time to recover a DNA profile from unidentified human remains typically ranges from two to seven days.  Remains that have been subjected to fire, salt water or extended environmental exposure can be challenging, however the current methods used at NSW Health Pathology to extract and analyse DNA have proved to be highly successful.

Since 2019, all missing persons cases in NSW have been re-examined by NSW Police and, where possible, the Forensic & Analytical Science Service has recovered DNA profiles from all long-term unidentified human remains. In many cases, a sample of recovered DNA, tissue or bone is retained in the event that future DNA technology allows for even more advanced testing. The use of multiple profiling techniques such as Y-chromosome testing and mitochondrial DNA sequencing optimises the potential for identification and the recovery of previously unattainable DNA profiles from historical cases.

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Recovered DNA profiles are uploaded to the National DNA Database where they are continually searched against DNA profiles recovered from personal items belonging to missing persons and profiles of individuals on the database.
 
In what is known as “familial” or “kinship” searching, DNA profiles from unidentified remains are also continuously searched against the profiles of relatives of missing persons and complex computer algorithms are used to identify potential biological relatives. This has provided many families of missing persons with answers that may not have been previously possible without advanced forensic capabilities.
 
For example, in 2020, the Forensic & Analytical Science Service used familial DNA searching to identify a jawbone found on a NSW beach in 2011 as belonging to a mariner lost at sea off the NSW North Coast in 1979.
 
If a DNA profile recovered from unidentified remains does not match samples on the National DNA Database, additional tools such as phenotyping and ancestry testing takes place. Phenotyping uses the DNA recovered from skeletal remains to predict the physical appearance of an individual, including characteristics such as hair and eye colour. This information can provide investigators with valuable information to assist in identifications.
 
The Forensic & Analytical Science Service is currently taking part in the evaluation of forensic genetic genealogy which has the capability to significantly extend the reach of familial DNA searching to identify distant biological relationships.  
 
NSW Health Pathology is firmly committed to our partnership with NSW Police which is ensuring families and loved ones receive the respect and answers they deserve.