Over the years, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Anthropological Research Facility—better known as the Body Farm—has provided law enforcement investigators with countless insights into the ways human bodies decompose.
Now forensic anthropologists are teaming with plant and soil science researchers from the UT Institute of Agriculture in a multidisciplinary effort to determine whether the nutrients released by a decomposing body might alter the coloration of a tree’s leaves enough to make a difference in a search for a missing person.
“The goal is to limit the space that’s searched on the ground,” said Professor of Plant Sciences Neal Stewart. “Instead of sending out search crews over many square miles, you can identify certain spots where people can focus their search. I do believe we can do that if we better understand how plants respond to decomposition and the flush of nutrients.”
Started in June and delayed by COVID-19, the research is still in the early stages. “We began by placing donors at three plots at the Body Farm with trees and woody shrubs to look at the response in the soil and in the plants,” said Stewart. “The idea is to collect soil data and to gauge how microorganisms cause changes in the soil and what chemicals are produced, notably nitrogen. We can then understand the plant responses over days to weeks. If we could see a response within two to three weeks, that would be a game changer.”
The study will use a new laser-based sensor, to be eventually mounted on a drone, which will analyze leaves for fluorescence signatures over broad areas. The FILP (fluorescence-inducing laser projector) will first analyze individual leaves to measure how their colors and fluorescence changes over time when plants are near human remains. “Once diagnostic spectra are compiled,” said Stewart, “researchers can begin to think about scaling up to drones and other technology that can analyze a large area in a short time.”
“As a natural laboratory to observe human decomposition,” said Dawnie Steadman, director of the Forensic Anthropology Center, “the Body Farm is the perfect location to test and validate new technologies to assist in body and grave detection. We hope that this research will promote new opportunities to leverage cutting-edge technologies for forensic purposes.”
The research is funded by an award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. Additional support came from UT and from US Department of Agriculture Hatch grants.
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