Experts with a keen sense of smell

Thanks to the development of a new chemical analysis technology by two University of Liège departments, Belgium now finds itself at the forefront in the precise identification of the odours of death. This process should interest criminologists and police forces the world over, up to and including the famous FBI...

Nicrophorus-vespilloidesCertain people will find it macabre, revolting. Others will find it fascinating, if only because concrete applications could contribute to soothing the mourning process undergone by the loved ones of a person who has died. Forensic entomology – the study of the role of insects in the decomposition of cadavers – at least has the characteristic of leaving nobody indifferent. As has been known for a long time, just a few minutes are required before a series of insects specialised in the task of ‘cleaning’ hurtle towards an animal or human cadaver. If the temperature and accessibility conditions come together it is for example the Calliphoridae (a very specific family of the Diptera insects; greenbottle fly, bluebottle) which begin the work of decomposition. Others will follow, generally the just as specialised Coleoptera beetles (Silphidea, Dermestidae, etc.). Without the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released by the cadaver the arrival of these necrophageous insects would be seriously delayed. Depending on the species of insect found on a cadaver, but above all depending on the stage of the development of their larvae and pupae, it is possible to determine the time and place of death. And, in certain criminal investigations, to reveal the strategies set in place by the killer – moving the body, for example – to cover up their infamous deed. In working on the VOCs dogs can also be trained to detect bodies buried under the rubble after a disaster.

International databases, amongst them those of the famous FBI (United States), classically number close to 400 volatile organic compounds, out of which more or less a hundred are specifically linked to the ‘odours’ of the cadaver. This directory has just taken a great leap forward thanks to the partnership established between two of the University of Liège’s research units: the Chemistry Department’s Organic and Biological Analytical Chemistry department and Gembloux Agro-Bio Tech’s Functional and Evolutionary Entomology Unit, with the support of the Federal Police Force’s team which specialises in the identification of victims, the DVI (Disaster Victim Identification Team). After several years of work the experts have developed a new analysis method, more complex and more effective, to identify the ‘odours of death,’ allowing 830 compounds specific to animal decomposition to be identified. Its name: comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography combined with mass spectrometry.

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