• The Financial District


A number of researchers at the University of Tennessee have been working to use plants, specifically their biological behaviors, as a forensic tool to determine whether a decomposing human is nearby, Lindsay Campbell wrote for the US trade journal Modern Farmer on September 14, 2020 (September 15, 2020 in Manila).

Their study, published in the journal Trends in Plant Science, outline how compounds released from a dead body would stimulate a reaction in the plants that could change their appearance or composition. These changes, both visible and invisible to the naked eye, could be used as signals to a forensic team on an investigation, which would improve current challenges faced when searching for a missing person.

According to the National Institute of Justice, approximately 600,000 people go missing in the United States each year. Authorities find many of them alive and well, but they discover an estimated 4,400 unidentified bodies on an annual basis. A search for a missing body includes pedestrian surveys, aerial photography and dog teams, but searches that are in overgrown areas with rough terrain can be unsafe and challenging for forensic teams.

Previous research conducted on plant responses to human body metabolites other than nitrogen is scarce, but Neal Stewart, a plant scientist at University of Tennessee and co-author of the paper, is optimistic that his team will be able to fill in the gaps of this area, as outlined in their paper. “Plants have been overlooked in detecting dead people, but what people in agriculture know is that without plants there would be no life,” he says. “And so here we’re just using what nature gives us: the soil, the plants to find where there was life… it’s an interesting turn on agriculture and farming.” Researchers say a decomposing human body can release up to 50 times the amount of nitrogen in comparison to a dose of nitrogen fertilizer. This can cause a plant’s leaves to become greener and denser, as it ramps up the process of making chlorophyll. Healthy, nitrogen-fed plants also reflect more light, which can be measured with technology called a refractometer.

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