Mitochondrial DNA is long-lasting genetic material that is passed down only on the maternal side. A sample from a relative on the maternal side of a family can be compared with that from remains to determine a familial link.
Analysis of mitochondrial DNA has led to an increased number of identifications, especially recently from the Korean War. Between 1991 and 1994, North Korea gave the United States 208 boxes of remains believed to contain the commingled remains of 200 to 400 U.S. servicemen, known as the “K208.”
Documents accompanying the K208 set of remains indicated that Cpl. Anderson’s were among them. Using the documents, dental and X-ray records, and mitochondrial DNA from his nephew and niece, the researchers were able to identify the long-missing soldier.
JPAC “had cases out there which, unfortunately, because of the conditions of the remains … dental comparisons were not possible, and they could only glean so much from anthropological evaluations of material,” said Mr. Canik, the Dover lab’s deputy director.
“So, therefore, DNA then all of a sudden became a very real tool … that we could use in the ID of those deceased service members from Vietnam, Korea, Cold War and World War II losses.”
In fact, forensic scientists can use mitochondrial DNA to identify remains dating back even earlier than World War II. Scientists recently discovered two sets of skeletal remains that could be from the 17 sailors lost on the USS Monitor in 1863 during the Civil War. Researchers and forensic scientists at the Dover lab now are trying to identify which of 17 sailors match the skeletal remains.
The Dover lab also is tasked with collecting mitochondrial DNA from current service members to keep on hand for identification of remains when necessary.
The lab’s DNA registry holds more than 6 million bloodstained cards bearing genetic material from every person who has joined the armed forces since 1992.
‘Not just a job’
JPAC’s search and recovery missions and the Dover lab’s genetic identification operations are overseen by the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, an agency of more than 100 civilians and military members who work with the State Department and other nations to negotiate terms for excavations and the transfer of remains.
The office also is responsible for training service members how to survive if they become separated from their units during overseas assignments.
In addition, the office provides families of missing troops with periodic updates on the searches for their loved ones and, through each service’s casualty office, notifies those families when remains are identified.
Meanwhile, JPAC carries out about 70 excavations a year, and identifies the remains of about 80 missing personnel each year, thanks in large part to the mitochondrial DNA analysis conducted by the Dover lab.
Last year, Congress ordered the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office’s units to identify 200 remains a year beginning in 2015, increasing the budget from $70 million last year to $100 million this year.
Mr. Tucker, a JPAC spokesman, said he is confident that the goal will be reached. He cited the unit’s talented, dedicated staff and significant technological advances.