Deciphering the secrets of WWI and WWII bones using DNA

Specialist Reserve Forensic Doctor Flight Lieutenant Kirsty Wright, places a sample for DNA testing.

No. 2 Expeditionary Health Squadron’s (2EHS) Flight Lieutenant (FLTLT) Dr Kirsty Wright has identified victims of the Bali Bombings, the Boxing Day Tsunami, aviation disasters, fires, and homicides. 

Her toughest challenge is giving names to the bones of unaccounted Australian soldiers. 

The Australian Defence Force has been developing world-class forensic capability using Specialist Reservists such as FLTLT Wright. 

She is a Forensic Biologist with Major Crime experience who led Queensland’s Skeletal Remains Project, was Manager of the National Criminal Investigation DNA Database, and assisted in the recovery and identification of Daniel Morcombe. 

She currently leads a team of forensic biology researchers who are developing new and exciting DNA methods for the ADF.

“My role within the ADF is to develop and implement DNA capability to identify victims of current conflicts and disasters,” she said

“I have assisted in delivering an integrated forensic response that provides swift overseas deployment of a mobile mortuary,” 

“This can be used to help accurately identify deceased more rapidly in foreign theatres.”

FLTLT Wright’s other role is with the Unrecovered War Casualties-Army (UWC-A), which investigates remains of unaccounted Australian soldiers from historical conflicts.

“The UWC-A is strongly supported by the RAAF and the RAN through access to their Forensic Officers, and has worked jointly and collaboratively with the RAAF on recovery and identifications involving their unaccounted members,” she said

“It is very much a joint effort.” 

FLTLT Wright said DNA can survive in bones for thousands of years, and new technology can unlock secrets once thought impossible to reveal.

“DNA passed down to a WWI soldier by their mother (mitochondrial DNA), can be used to identify them using distant maternal relatives,” she said

“Likewise for paternally inherited DNA (from the Y-chromosome),”

“The DNA recovered from WWI/WWII bones can reveal a person’s ancestral origins, and hair and eye colour.”

This is especially useful technology for WWII remains recovered the Kokoda Track, where there is often no other way to tell if the soldier is Japanese or Australian. 

FLTLT Wright said the ADF Forensic cases are the most challenging she has ever encountered. 

“Standard methods used for criminal cases, in many instances, can’t be used on historical military remains and DNA research targeted specifically for ADF needs is critical,” she said

“The Australian Army Research Centre has provided wonderful support which is allowing my research team to develop world-class methods and establishing the ADF as a leader in new DNA technology,”

“There is a lot of international interest in our work, and I’m proud to be doing this on behalf of the ADF, and I’m thankful for the ongoing support that the RAAF provides.”  

More information on the UWC-A can be found at https://www.army.gov.au/our-work/unrecovered-war-casualties