Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck
A new forensic test developed by researchers at the University of Salzburg in Austria is capable of determining a person’s exact time of death up to 10 days after the fact.
The research was presented this week at the Society for Experimental Biology’s annual conference in Prague, Czech Republic, and measured the breakdown of muscle proteins in deceased pigs over time due to their similarity to human muscles. Those proteins are comprised of larger molecules that begin to break down into smaller pieces after a person dies.
“This happens for some of the proteins in a very specific time frame,” lead researcher Dr. Peter Steinbacher, a developmental biologist at the university, told BBC News. “Even the breakdown products are present for a specific time. So if you know which of these products are present in a sample then you know when the individual died.”
He added that there was “a huge lack of reliable methods” to calculate the time of death “after the moment when the body has cooled down to environmental temperatures.” Current methods involve measuring core body temperature, which only works up to 36 hours after death.
‘Promising’ method still years away from regular use
“Depending on the temperature, this takes normally about one to two days,” Dr. Steinbacher told the BBC. “We’re searching for a new way to assess the time of death after this… [and found that] muscle protein degradation proved to be a very promising method.”
He and his colleagues also analyzed more than five-dozen human tissue samples obtained from the university’s forensics department. They witnessed similar changes in those samples, and Dr. Steinbacher said they now need to analyze more samples to determine whether or not gender, bodyweight, temperature, humidity, or other factors play a role in the breakdown.
The researchers said they are hopeful that experts gathering key forensic evidence could use the technique within the next three years, and while experts are optimistic that this will wind up being a useful new tool, they are also urging people not to get too excited.
Dr. Stuart Hamilton, a forensic pathologist from the University of Leicester, told BBC News that the research was interesting and that “any research that could… narrow down a time of death is always of value.” However, he also warned that it will take time before this method is approved for use in the courtroom.
“There is so much riding on the time of death in many murders that we will all as a forensic and legal community have to be very convinced that there are no confounding factors before we start relying on this to convict someone,” Dr. Hamilton added.
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