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Plants might be able to help forensic scientists find dead bodies

Researchers think that, if someone dies in the forest, the effect of chemicals from their decomposing body on surrounding plants could help search teams locate them. Pictured, a stream in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. File Photo by Doug Lemke/Shutterstock
Researchers think that, if someone dies in the forest, the effect of chemicals from their decomposing body on surrounding plants could help search teams locate them. Pictured, a stream in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. File Photo by Doug Lemke/Shutterstock

Sept. 4 (UPI) -- Most people pass away with friends and family not too far away, but a small minority of fatalities happen far from civilization.

Often, trees and other types of vegetation obscure the search for missing bodies. But in a new paper, published this week in the journal Trends in Plant Science, scientists considered the possibility that plants could help forensic scientists track down dead bodies.

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"In smaller, open landscapes foot patrols could be effective to find someone missing, but in more forested or treacherous parts of the world like the Amazon, that's not going to be possible at all," senior author Neal Stewart Jr., professor of plant sciences at the University of Tennessee, said in a news release.

"This led us to look into plants as indicators of human decomposition, which could lead to faster, and possibly safer body recovery," he said.

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At the University of Tennessee's "body farm," forensic scientists study how different environmental factors influence decomposition of the human body. Now, in a new series of experiments, researchers will study how human body decay influences the biochemistry of plants.

More specifically, scientists will measure the effects of human body decomposition on the nutrient concentrations of the surrounding soil and observe the effects on plant physiology.

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"The most obvious result of the islands would be a large release of nitrogen into the soil, especially in the summertime when decomposition is happening so fast," Stewart said. "Depending on how quickly the plants respond to the influx of nitrogen, it may cause changes in leaf color and reflectance."

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Of course, large deer, bear or other mammals die and decompose in the woods more often than humans. Through their experiments, scientists hope to identify detectable metabolites that are released by decomposing humans, but not other animals. Scientists suggest it's possible that metabolites from drugs or food preservatives consumed by humans could influence plant growth or appearance.

"One thought is if we had a specific person who went missing who was, let's say, a heavy smoker, they could have a chemical profile that could trigger some sort of unique plant response making them easier to locate," Stewart said. "Though at this stage this idea is still farfetched."

Once researchers identify biochemical signatures triggered by body decomposition, researchers could scan for fluorescence or reflectance signals to pinpoint the location of a dead body.

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"We've actually built a whole plant imager that can analyze fluorescence signatures," said Stewart.

Even if such technology proved moderately effective, it could reduce the amount of time and energy required to locate human remains. When foul play is involved, the faster investigators can find a body, the more likely they are to catch the perpetrator.

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"When you start to think about deploying drones to look for specific emissions, now we can think of the signals more like a check engine light -- if we can quickly fly where someone may have gone missing and collect data over tens or even hundreds of square kilometers, then we'd know the best spots to send in a search team," Stewart said.

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