Identification of DNA in Cold Cases: Q&A with Expert Steen Hartsen

We sat down with DNA expert and Forensics instructor Steen Hartsen to learn about a recent case he worked on here at BCIT.

Q: Tell us about the recent case of a newly-discovered airplane crash site with very old unidentified human remains.

We were recently sent samples from an airplane crash in northern BC. The remains had been recovered from a floatplane that crashed in 1987 at Wells Gray Provincial Park. The BCIT Forensic DNA lab was ultimately able to develop DNA profiles, which allowed the BC Coroner Service to positively identify the individuals who died.

While developing DNA profiles from human remains is part of the BCIT Forensic DNA Laboratory’s typical caseload, this case was unique in that the remains had been in the elements for a long period of time under conditions which can easily destroy DNA. It tends to break down over time, and warm wet weather speeds that process up significantly.

image shows human bone fragment with measurements and DNA sampling marks
Typical bone sample after analysis (exhibit photo is unrelated to this case study)

Q: How does the analysis work, when dealing with such old samples?

As part of the analysis process here at BCIT, we first need to cut the bones into small pieces, and then crush the bones down into a powder using liquid nitrogen so we can perform the analytical methods required.

We then dissolve that powder into a series of chemicals, so DNA trapped in the calcified hard tissues are able to be analyzed. DNA molecules from calcified tissues are going to give us the best results for our analysis.

Our lab has a long history of working on challenging human remains samples with the BC Coroner’s Service (BCCS), and we have tailored our processes to increase the chances of getting a DNA profile from these types of samples.

Q: When you’ve built the DNA profile, what’s next?

Once we have a profile from a set of human remains, we can compare that sample to a reference profile to make a match.

There is no database out there with everyone’s DNA in it. Making these matches relies on investigative work on the part of the BCCS or law enforcement agencies to get an idea of who these remains might belong to.

When they are associated with something recognizable like a plane crash, that job can be straightforward. However, when a bone floats up on a riverbed or is found in the forest, it can be quite difficult to know who it belongs to. Investigators will get reference samples from family members whenever possible. Then we can see if the DNA from the remains belong to a relative. Once we make a match and submit a report to the BCCS, they are able to make the final identification and provide some closure to the family of the individual who had been missing. In this case it had been over 30 years.

Read more: From watching CSI to completing a degree in Forensic Investigation

Steen Hartsen with BCIT student looking at a plastic bag containing a coffee cup
Steen Hartsen (left) in the BCIT Forensics lab

Q: How does it feel, solving something like this?

The humanitarian aspect of the work is very important to everyone involved in the BCIT Forensic DNA Laboratory. We are fortunate to be involved in this, and to help the community at large with the work that we do.

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