Rewriting the Science on DNA Mass Identification

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 5, 2003

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Howard Cash attended the funeral of a New York firefighter who died in the World Trade Center. The firefighter's remains had not been recovered. As he watched a flag being folded over three helmets the firefighter once wore, Cash wondered: "How many funerals will be held without a coffin?"

Like many others, Cash felt an urgent need to help in the wake of the horrific events. Unlike many others, he was actually in a position to do something about it. As the president of Gene Codes, a Michigan-based bio-informatics firm, Cash had been tasked with inventing a new computer software program to identify the 9/11 victims based on DNA.

Over the next few months, Gene Codes doubled its staff as computer programmers worked around the clock to develop the new software. On December 13, 2001, they delivered M-FISys, short for "mass fatality identification system." The New York medical examiner made 55 positive identifications from DNA matches that day. Since then, Cash has traveled to New York almost every Friday with upgrades to the software.

The program has been remarkably successful in its somber pursuit to identify the victims' remains, many of which deteriorated so badly from exposure to fire, heat, and water that only a partial piece of DNA, if any, could be isolated. Of the 2,792 victims, forensic experts have identified 1,489 people. While the search for remains has stopped, identifications are still continuing.

Experts maintain M-FISys has rewritten the science of DNA mass identification. Robert Shaler, director of the Department of Forensic Biology in New York, which performs the lab work, called the software "a prototype" for matching DNA profiles in mass disasters. "DNA is the sexy part, but the real underpinning of [the identification process] is computer software," said Shaler.

Processing the Data

Before 9/11, Gene Codes' main business was a DNA sequencing software called "Sequencher" used by research universities and drug and biotech companies, not as a forensics tool in a disaster. The software helped scientists to work on the Human Genome Project, which was recently finished.

When Cash was invited to New York shortly after the WTC attacks, he found the DNA identification and collection system in complete disarray. Information was stored in 22 different databases, from FileMaker Pro to Oracle. "It was a horrible data processing problem," said Cash.

Gene Codes was hired on October 8, 2001, to come up with a new, sophisticated database system that could manage inventory and identify the victims' remains. Programmers incorporated some parts of "Sequencher" into the new software, but essentially had to start from scratch.

What they invented was a pattern-matching software that can—in just a few seconds—simultaneously sort information from three different DNA tests on human remains and compare them to DNA samples taken from victims' kin and genetic material from personal effects. Crunching DNA data that previously took two weeks now takes mere minutes.

"No one had tried to do it on a scale like this before," said Cash. "If we had written it a year before 9/11, people would have said, 'That's cool, but why would you ever need it?' The scale of the disaster changed the requirements."

Molecular Search and Rescue

Continued on Next Page >>


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