When investigating a homicide, nature is unkind and time is not your friend. Rain washes away important evidence. Wind blows it who knows where. And nature quickly does some grisly things to the most precious piece of evidence in any homicide—the victim.
(If you have a weak stomach, now might be a good time to skip to the next article.) We’re talking about the rapid decay of human flesh. We’re talking muck. We’re talking maggots.
In short order, nature turns that key piece of evidence into something unidentifiable. That’s where NWU forensic science graduates Ashley Grygor (’09) and Jodi Nicolai (’09) come in. They are the first to apply new criminal entomology research methods to real world crime scenes. They can make maggots talk. They can make maggots reveal the identity of the person they’ve been eating by extracting human DNA from the tissue in their gut.
“Forensic scientists have used maggots in the past to estimate time of death,” said Nicolai. “But this is the first application that uses them to establish identity.”
Perhaps decay or dismemberment makes facial recognition impossible. Perhaps the victim has no dental records to cross-reference. Perhaps a decomposing body had been recently removed from the scene. Or perhaps the body had decomposed to such an extent that investigators cannot reliably tell where the body ends and the soil around it begins. Maggots could be useful in establishing identity in any of these circumstances, Nicolai and Grygor said.
“We want to bring another method to an investigator’s tool kit,” Grygor said.
The pair didn’t invent this method of DNA extraction, but, thanks to NWU’s Student-Faculty Collaborative Research Grant, they are the first to apply it in real crime scenes in Phoenix and Las Vegas—places where the heat accelerates decomposition.
“In the past, successful extractions have come from very controlled lab experiments,” said Grygor. “They’ve known exactly when the maggots were introduced and have taken their samples specifically when the maggots are at the stage where they’re most actively feeding on tissue.”
Crime scene investigators do not have the luxury of the laboratory’s control. They arrive and take a random sample. So that’s exactly what Nicolai and Grygor did in Phoenix and Las Vegas, where medical investigators affectionately labeled them “the Maggot Girls.”
Their results from crime scenes suggest this approach has promising real world applications. The same forces that literally eat crime scene evidence can be compelled to give it back. We just need sound science and professionals who are willing to plug their noses and go after it. We need the Maggot Girls.