The chances of identifying some of the 35,000 Australian soldiers who lie unknown in foreign fields are a step closer with a dramatic DNA breakthrough by Sydney scientists.
The Australian Army's Unrecovered War Casualties unit and NSW Health Pathology's Forensic Science Service have been working with more that 300 sets of remains thought to be Australian servicemen for the past few months.
Now experts at the NSW Health Pathology's Specialist DNA Lab, have successfully extracted DNA from remains recovered from World War I battlefields in France and from the Papua New Guinea theatre of World War II.
Jodie Ward, NSW Health Pathology's forensic DNA specialist, said the breakthrough would allow experts from the Unrecovered War Casualties unit to analyse the individual genetic profiles to determine if they were Australian soldiers ahead of a wider search for possible relatives.
The final phase of the identification process would involve inviting living relatives, no matter how distant, to donate a DNA family reference sample in a bid to match it with DNA profiles from the remains.
Dr Ward said that, until now, identification of these remains had been impossible; in most cases due to age and level of decomposition. But the combination of expertise in remains recovery, emerging forensic science and DNA technology had resulted in a leap forward in the complex identification process.
"We are deeply honoured to to be part of this immensely important work," Dr Ward said.
"This is an exciting, early breakthrough in an incredibly complex but important identification journey.
"Until now we've always been hampered by the deterioration. This is especially true for remains found in the tropics like PNG even though they have not lain in place anywhere as long as those recovered from Europe.
"These remains are severely compromised but new techniques have given us the breakthrough."
Experts at NSW Health Pathology's Specialist DNA Laboratory applied intricate DNA techniques to test and analyse samples of bone and teeth from the recovered remains to help build the genetic profiles.
The first stage involved a specialised extraction procedure designed to recover DNA from compromised skeletal remains. This was followed by two further tests; one to target DNA in the mitochondria of cells (inherited from the mother), and the other to target DNA exclusive to the Y chromosome in male (inherited from the father).
Health Minister Brad Hazzard??? said it was astounding to see DNA being used to bring the past into the present.
"As a minister for health this is truly satisfying but to many Australian families this will be life changing," he said.
Dr Ward won a Winston Churchill Trust Fellowship and in preparation for her work on the Australian remains she visited some of the world's leading forensic laboratories in human identification last year, including the International Commission on Missing Persons in Bosnia, the US Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory in Delaware, FBI DNA laboratory and University of North Texas Centre ??? for Human Identification.
Dr Ward said further advancements in forensic genetics could see emerging technologies, such as forensic DNA phenotyping??? (or molecular photo-fitting) being adopted to aid identification of compromised human remains. This involved targeting specific regions of the genome to predict an individual's ancestry and physical appearance such as skin, hair and eye colour.