As submitted by the proposer: The identification of fragmentary human remains following a mass disaster or discovery of a commingled grave is an immediate and fundamental obligation of the forensic community, not only to bring closure to decedent's families, but to aid investigators collecting evidence for the criminal justice system.
Increasingly, DNA analysis is used to identify often thousands of fragmentary remains recovered from mass disasters and commingled graves. DNA testing of all these samples is expensive and time consuming, delaying funerals and potentially impending investigations. In addition, many samples may not yield DNA results due to degradation or contamination with inhibitors of DNA polymerases. Because proteins are abundant and more resistant to degradation than nucleic acids, they offer an attractive alternative as biomolecular identifying markers.
Advances in proteomics over the past decade rivals what occurred in genomics in the previous decade. Mass spectrometers are now faster, simpler, more accurate and sensitive. Similar advances have occurred in nano-liquid chromatography and, importantly, in the power of bioinformatics to rapidly search and recover annotated protein information from ever increasing databases. It is now possible to distinguish people by single amino acid variants. These advances have propelled proteomics to the forefront of routine high throughput testing in the clinic, pharmaceutical and food industries.
The goal of this application is to evaluate the use of mass spectrometry for the rapid identification of large numbers of fragmentary human remains following mass disasters or discovery of commingled graves. This assay would be useful not only where DNA degradation or contamination precludes DNA analysis, but also for separating large numbers of fragments into groups of single individuals, consequently reducing DNA STR testing to only a single fragment.
Three specific aims are proposed: 1) to identify informative amino acid polymorphisms in human muscle and bone that can be used for individual identification, to confirm these variants by genetic analysis, and to determine the maximum population size that they can meaningfully discriminate, 2) to assay three different body areas of each individual in order to assess possible variations in protein expression, and 3), to evaluate taphonomic effects on protein degradation over time.
This project joins the diverse expertise of the forensics and anthropology departments of the NYC OCME and the University of Tennessee with the strength of the genetic and bioinformatics expertise of New York University with the goal of improving the scientific rigor and application of forensic proteomics in the field.