New DNA test could help identify soldiers still missing from WWII


Scientists have developed a new DNA test that could help identify hundreds of Australian soldiers still unidentified from WWII.

Queensland scientists have developed a new DNA test that could help identify the remains of some of the hundreds of Australian soldiers still unidentified across the Asia-Pacific since WW II.

Australian soldiers fought the Japanese in the region - but almost 80 years later, many still do not have a grave.

Remains are still being found on former battlefields, such as in Papua New Guinea.

Forensic biologist Dr Kirsty Wright, who is a visiting fellow at the QUT Genomics Research Centre, said the bones were highly degraded so identifying them is difficult.

“In the Asia Pacific, in particular, the climate and environment is very, very harsh,” Dr Wright told SBS News.

“You’ve got the heat and the rain and the bacterial insult, so those bones start to degrade very rapidly.

“And when the anthropologists discover the bones, they sometimes fall apart in their hands, they have the consistency of Weetbix, so trying to get DNA and reliable answers from those bones is a challenge,” she said.

Recovering remains in PNG
Australian army recovering remains in PNG
Defence Department (via QUT)

Dr Wright worked as forensic scientists for decades and helped identify the remains of those killed in the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami for example.

Now at QUT, her team developed the new DNA test, which is believed to better identify remains than current DNA tests.

Dr Wright said the first step was to determine the ancestry of the bones.

The new test can predict Australian or Japanese ancestry in 79 per cent more cases than current mitochondrial DNA testing methods. It can even match the eye and hair colour.

“It’s very targeted and very specific and above all, the tolerance for error is zero,” she told SBS News.

The team at QUT
QUT Dr Kirsty Wright (left), Andrew Ghaiyed, Kyle James, QUT Prof Lyn Griffiths

According to Dr Wright, the new test, developed by QUT’s Andrew Ghaiyed and Kyle James on her team, targets specific SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) in the human genome.

“On the two metres of DNA, that’s in everybody’s cell, there are pieces of DNA that are quite specific to where you have come from,” Dr Wright said

“We are looking at very small pieces of DNA that are either common in Japan or rare in Australia and vice versa, and we are also looking at hair and eye colour.”

Dr Wright explained when the DNA result indicates that a person had blond hair and blue eyes, for example, then they were “pretty confident that that person was an Australian”.

The current mitochondrial DNA test, on the other hand, only had a 25 per cent success rate.

The scientists received funding from Australian Army Research centre, and the army will test it on the remains of soldiers found in PNG.

Andrew Ghaiyed from QUT
Andrew Ghaiyed from QUT

Ensuring a soldier’s origin, Dr Wright said, was a top priority.

“When we know they are Australian, they can be buried in a Commonwealth war grave, or if we know they are Japanese they can be respectfully returned to Japan.

“If we get that wrong, we could accidentally send an Australian to Japan, or a Japanese soldier buried in a Commonwealth war grave; and we cannot get that wrong,” she stressed.

Once scientists find out that the remains belonged to an Australian soldier, Dr Wright said further DNA tests could then establish a soldier’s identity.

The Department of Defence said thousands of soldiers from WW II are still missing or unaccounted for.

"In the Asia Pacific region there are approximately 6400 Australian soldiers who remain unaccounted for (missing or presumed deceased) from WWII, in Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Indonesia, and Korea," Defence a spokesperson said.

The department said it remains committed to investigating all reports of possible remains of Australian soldiers in the region.

More than 600 Australians were killed and some 1680 wounded along the Kokoda track in PNG during one of the most significant battles fought by Australian soldiers in World War II.

Australian soldiers on the Kokoda tracl
Members of D Company, 39th Battalion, after a battle at Isurava on the Kokoda track in Papua New Guinea

Some of the remains of soldiers from the track were discovered as late as 2012. 

A senior historian from the Australian War Memorial Dr Karl James said there were about 160 Australian soldiers killed at or near Kokoda who have no known grave.

Dr James told SBS News the new DNA test is an important development.

"We know that there a well over a hundred Australian soldiers who are still considered to be missing or have no known grave from the Kokoda trail," he said.

"So anything that can be done now will really help the descendants of those family members. 

"I think the term closure is overused, but I am certain it will bring some solace to the families who lost loved ones," he stressed.

Dr James said he hoped the new technology would eventually also be used to identify the remains of soldiers killed in other battles and eras, including WWI.

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