Scientists in Vietnam are set to embark upon the largest mass identification project in history, using DNA analysis techniques developed in Germany to determine the identities of millions of people who died during the Vietnam War. Though it is now more than four decades since hostilities ended, remains of those who lost their lives on the battlefield continue to turn up across the country, yet most of these have decomposed to such an extent that identification is not possible.
In an attempt to resolve this ongoing tragedy, the Vietnamese government has recruited German biotechnology firm Bioglobe to oversee a large-scale DNA profiling project, which is now ready to be rolled out. The first stage of the operation will being next month, when a group of Vietnamese scientists will travel to Hamburg to receive training on how to use special DNA analysis kits developed by another German firm called Qiagen.
This technique has been specially designed to meet the particular challenges of working with bones that have remained buried for over 40 years in the humid Vietnamese climate. Under such conditions, DNA tends to decompose very rapidly, which makes it very difficult to obtain sufficient samples to create a profile of the individuals to whom these bones belonged, Nature reports.
The new approach will involve chemically breaking down the cells in bones in order to extract their genetic material. This will then be amplified using specialized enzymes to generate a sufficient amount needed to read the sequences and create a genetic profile. At the same time, researchers hope to collect DNA samples from thousands of surviving Vietnamese civilians, enabling them to create a national genetic reference bank. Using this, they should be able to finally determine the identities of those corpses for which DNA profiles are obtained.
The number of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers killed during the conflict could be as high as 3.8 million. VIETNAM WAR, 29 April 1975 - National Cemetery in Bien Hoa by manhhai via Flickr. CC BY 2.0
The Vietnam war raged from 1954 to 1975, and saw the Communist-backed North Vietnamese Army and National Liberation Front (or Viet Cong) take on the forces of the South Vietnam government and the U.S.A. Estimates for the number of Vietnamese civilians and soldiers killed during the conflict are highly ambiguous, ranging from 1-3 million, although some reports suggest that the number could be as high as 3.8 million.
A major reason for this confusion lies in the fact that so many of those who died on the battlefield have not been identified. While only one U.S. soldier killed in the conflict remained unidentified at the end of the war, the vast majority of Vietnamese casualties have still not been formally confirmed or named.
However, the team behind the forthcoming project – which includes experts who helped to identify more than 20,000 victims of the Bosnian War – hopes to DNA profile around 1.4 million unidentified specimens by 2020.
Top image by manhhai via Flickr. CC BY 2.0