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Podcast: Science With A Twist

Episode Summary

Most people think that forensic science is just used to solve crimes. But, forensics can offer so much more. When partnered with other sciences, forensics can help us get answers to historical questions. Therefore, forensics can bring history closer to the non-scientific community and help the public understand its impact on humankind.

In this episode of Science with a Twist, Dr. Marta Diepenbroek joins host Sheri Olson to discuss DNA analysis and its impact on identifying the victims of war and totalitarian regimes. Dr. Diepenbroek is a Postdoctoral Scholar at the Institute of Legal Medicine, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich in Germany. So far, she has worked on several projects, including the Sobibor Project, which led to the identification of Jewish Holocaust victims.

Dr. Diepenbroek shares the findings from working on this project and explains the significance of the joint work of forensics and other sciences, such as archaeology and history, on this and similar projects.


Video Highlight





Guest Profiles


Dr. Marta Diepenbroek

Postdoctoral Researcher

Institute of Legal Medicine, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany

 

Noteworthy: Dr. Marta focuses on implementing state-of-the-art forensic technologies and training forensic labs and law enforcement.

 

Where to find her: LinkedIn








Quotation marks
This means that we are not only able to look for very distant relatives but also learn a bit more about the history of the family, about their bio. geographic origin, and using such information is especially crucial when working with cold cases or historical cases.

Dr. Marta Diepenbroek
PostDoctoral Scholar Institute of Legal Medicine, Ludwig Maximilian
University of Munich, Germany

Key Insights



DNA analysis enables the identification of missing persons. Asked about the impact of DNA analysis, Dr. Diepenbroek explains that such a method helps identify the victims regardless of time passed. Forensics uses the DNA from unknown remains and matches them with the DNA of missing persons’ relatives. Alongside her colleagues — including experts from the Institute of Legal Medicine in Innsbruck — Dr. Diepenbroek worked on several projects to identify the victims of World War II and totalitarian regimes. ''This means that we are not only able to look for very distant relatives but also learn a bit more about the history of the family and their bio-geographic origin, and using such information is especially crucial when working with cold cases or historical cases.''

 

Forensics can help answer questions regarding the history of humanity. Although the first association with forensics is solving crimes, Dr. Diepenbroek says forensic science can offer more. ''Yes, we solve crimes, but we can also solve missing persons cases — even if they are more than eight years old — because the power of forensic DNA analysis is that we can identify the victim despite how much time has passed.''

 

The joint work of forensics and other sciences is critical. As mentioned above, forensics helps illuminate particular historical events. The Sobibor Project is an example that proves the significance of such collaborations. "We had scientists from many different fields involved — specialists in archeology, history, anthropology, and forensics — and what we achieved together showed how all of the sciences, even if a bit distant, completed and helped each other. So the remains would never have been found if it was not for the archeological work carried out in the camp, but the truth about their identity would not have been discovered without DNA analysis."





Quotation marks
"We had scientists from many different fields involved - specialists in archeology, history, anthropology, and forensics, - - and what we achieved together showed how all of the sciences, even if potentially a bit distant, completed and helped each other. So the remains would never have been found if it was not thanks to the archeological work carried out in the camp, but the truth about their identity would not have been discovered without DNA analysis."

Dr. Marta Diepenbroek
PostDoctoral Scholar Institute of Legal Medicine, Ludwig Maximilian
University of Munich, Germany


Episode Highlights



How DNA Analysis Is Used to Identify Human Remains in Missing Persons Cases

"In forensics, we generally use the DNA from unknown remains and the DNA from the relatives of a missing person to compare the genetic material and identify the victim. So this is the ultimate goal in the human identification process. But forensic DNA can also bring additional information about the remains that can help with the identification."



DNA Analysis Used to Identify Jewish Holocaust Victims at Sobibór in Poland

"In the project of the Polish genetic database of victims of totalitarianism, we worked with human remains found at different excavation sites, and the majority of the victims were Polish partisans murdered secretly by the communist regime for opposing the new post-war government. And this is how we got involved in the most interesting project, the Sobibor Project.

 

Sobibór was a death camp built by the Nazis in 1942. And in contrast to better-known concentration camps, [these people] only had one purpose, and this purpose was to mass murder the Jews. [...] It is estimated that over 180,000 people were murdered inside. [...]

 

During fieldwork, archeologists uncovered an unexpected, intact skeleton. It was a very surprising discovery because, according to all the available testimonies, all the Jewish victims in the camp were cremated. So both archaeological and historical analysis of this discovery led to a hypothesis that the remains may belong to Polish partisans killed secretly by the communist regime in the '50s. It was assumed that they just used the former Nazi camp to hide the bodies. [...]

 

In order to carry out this analysis, we established a collaboration with the Institute of Legal Medicine in Innsbruck. Together with them, we analyzed mitochondrial genomes and the Y chromosome. This analysis shed new light on the remains because we discovered that both maternal and paternal lineages of the remains were very untypical for Poland. Still, they can

be found among modern Ashkenazi Jews. So thanks to the DNA, the truth about the discovery was revealed — that we found Jewish Holocaust victims."


A Few Words About the New Project: Identifying German War Victims

"Around five million German soldiers died during World War II. And until now, over one million of them are still missing. Germany has long struggled with the burden of guilt for the acts of war but has never stopped the identification of the fallen soldiers.

 

Even though a lot has been done to find the missing, the methods used to identify them did not change since the beginning of the war. So, an ID tag is decoded and used as a primary identification method. [...]

 

We are now implementing not only a common forensic DNA typing method but also the modern DNA phenotyping to aid the process of identification. And our aim is to build in the future genetic database and introduce a routine DNA-based identification of the fallen victims."