ANNAPOLIS – Officials are looking to Maryland genetics laboratories for high-tech help in the search to identify those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.
At the Armed Forces DNA Identification Center in Rockville, teams are working seven days a week to help identify victims from the Pentagon and Pennsylvania crashes.
Since Sept. 13, the center’s scientists have been extracting and matching DNA from tissue samples sent from Dover, Del., where remains from the Pentagon are examined, and Pennsylvania, where a morgue has been set up near the Pittsburgh crash.
In Delaware and Pennsylvania, forensic experts are using other means — autopsy data, fingerprinting and dental records — to identify victims.
“It’s important to note that although DNA is a great identifier, it’s one piece of evidence in a mystery that needs to be solved,” said center spokesman Christopher Kelley. “We work to have multiple means of making a positive identification: fingerprint, dental, DNA data.”
“We really have the best DNA lab in the world to do this kind of work,” Kelley said.
Not 10 minutes away from the armed forces lab, private researchers at Celera Genomics work to identify victims of the World Trade Centers disaster. Celera made headlines in 2000 for mapping the human genome, but in recent months the company has reported losses of more than $100 million.
“We are doing the work at cost,” Celera spokeswoman Heather Kowalski said, adding that the company’s facilities can handle the extra load. “We do not anticipate that this will adversely affect our ability to continue our other business.”
To identify the person behind the DNA sample, lab teams compare unknown DNA to DNA samples from known sources, like a family member’s blood or cheek swab, or DNA taken from blood, hair or toothbrushes belonging to a missing person.
Almost every U.S. service member has a blood sample kept in a facility near the Rockville lab. The military uses those samples to identify lost personnel.
“In the event we don’t have (a blood sample), we request primary samples from the victims: hair, tissue from a biopsy, saliva,” said Kelley.
Both Celera and the armed forces lab use the same basic comparison technique, but they use DNA from different parts of the cell. The armed forces lab uses DNA from the nucleus of sample cells, while Celera scientists extract DNA from mitochondria — cells’ “powerhouses” — for comparison.
Collecting useful DNA under disaster conditions can be difficult. “DNA can be damaged by extreme heat, that’s a concern as far as recovery goes,” armed forces lab technical leader Demeris Lee said. “(Samples) that are left out can start to decompose.”
Fuel fires from the jets that collided with the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 reached 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit by some estimates, hot enough to destroy nuclear DNA. The towers’ collapse left thousands buried under tons of rubble. Their remains will take weeks, if not months, to recover.
Mitochondrial DNA is preferred in very degraded samples, Lee said, because it’s available in higher concentrations than nuclear DNA. But making matches with mitochondrial DNA is a lot more time consuming and more expensive than with nuclear DNA.
The armed forces lab, which is charged with identifying soldiers from Vietnam and Korea, usually uses mitochondrial DNA testing, but samples from the Pentagon and Pennsylvania have been preserved well enough to use nuclear DNA, Lee said.
Lee said the lab has received offers from private companies across the country to help with the workload, but “at this time we haven’t done any type of collaborative work.”
In addition to Celera, authorities in New York have engaged another Maryland-connected private genetics lab to help with victim identification.
LabCorp, based in Burlington, N.C., and with more than 40 patient centers in Maryland, is collecting tissue samples from families of World Trade Center victims across the nation and around the world.
Families may call a LabCorp hotline number to set up tissue-collecting appointments at the nearest patient center, said spokeswoman Pam Sherry. The company has received many calls from Maryland families, Sherry said.