DNA and larvae reveal time of death

Photos: Lisa Van Damme © NICC

A newly-created reference database of DNA sequences of flies found on human corpses allows identification of fly larvae in order to date a person’s death accurately.

This database was developed by Kurt Jordaens and Marc De Meyer of the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA), in collaboration with Gontran Sonet and Thierry Backeljau of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS), the University of Antwerp (UA), and partners of the National Institute of Criminalistics and Criminology (NICC).

Using larval DNA to determine time of death

When a person dies, the corpse attracts a number of insects. Flies lay eggs on the corpse and the hatched larvae feed on it. Each species develops at a different rate, and their life cycles vary in length. Knowledge of the life cycles and identification of the larvae on a corpse thus make it possible to determine a person’s time of death, a crucial detail in forensic investigations. ‘However,’ explained Kurt Jordaens, ‘it is very difficult to identify fly larvae from their appearance alone. This is why we used adult fly DNA to create a database of specific DNA sequences that can be used to identify a species.
Every species has one or several specific DNA sequences that serve as a “DNA-barcode”. By analysing fly larval DNA, species can be easily and rapidly identified, thus making it possible to determine the time of death of the person on which the larvae were found’.

Prospects in Africa

While the database constructed by the scientists includes species found in Belgium and France only, it is a first step towards studying these fly families in Africa. ‘Those flies are not as well-known, so we decided to test the method on European species first. Our longer-term goal is to study fly families that have a significant impact in Africa, such as flies that cause myiasis [Editor's note: fly larvae infestations in human or animal organs or tissues]’, said Jordaens.

Collaboration bears fruit

The article ‘Utility of GenBank and the Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) for the identification of forensically important Diptera from Belgium and France’ was published on 30 December 2013 in a ZooKeys special edition on DNA barcoding. The special edition was published after the European conference ‘Barcoding of Organisms of Policy Concern’, jointly organized by the RMCA and RBINS in September 2012. This article, along with many others, is the result of a long collaboration between the two institutes.

Learn more:

  • G. Sonet, K. Jordaens, Y. Braet, L. Bourguignon, E. Dupont, T. Backeljau, M. De Meyer, S. Desmyter. 2013. ‘Utility of GenBank and the Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) for the identification of forensically important Diptera from Belgium and France’. ZooKeys 365: 307-328. Link
  • K. Jordaens, G. Sonet, Y. Braet, M. De Meyer, T. Backeljau, F. Goovaerts, L. Bourguignon, S. Desmyter. 2013. ‘DNA barcoding and the differentiation between North American and West European Phormia regina (Diptera, Calliphoridae, Chrysomyinae)’. ZooKeys 365: 149-174. Link
  • K. Jordaens, G. Sonet, R. Richet, E. Dupont, Y. Braet, S. Desmyter. 2012. ‘Identification of forensically important Sarcophaga species (Diptera: Sarcophagidae) using the mitochondrial COI gene’. International Journal of Legal Medicine 127(2): 491-504. Link
  • G. Sonet, K. Jordaens, Y. Braet, S. Desmyter. 2012. ‘Why is the molecular identification of the forensically important blowfly species Lucilia caesar and L. illustris (family Calliphoridae) so problematic?’. Forensic Science International 223(1-3): 153-9. Link
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