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12 May 2010

'History Cold Case' star writes first book on new forensics tool

Dr Wolfram Meier-Augenstein, one of the members of the forensic team featured in the new BBC Two series History Cold Case, has authored the world’s first book about a new forensic tool used in applications ranging from human identification to counter-terrorism.

The four-part series is screened on BBC Two at 9pm on Thursdays until May 27th. It shows skeletons of everyday people from across the ages being analysed in staggering detail by the team at the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy & Human Identification.

Part of this process involves a technique known as forensic isotope analysis, which is also used in food quality control and to combat pollution, illicit drug production and people trafficking. Dr Meier-Augenstein, a senior lecturer at the Centre and a Principal Scientist at SCRI, is one of the world's leading authorities on this technique.

'Stable Isotope Forensics: An Introduction to the Forensic Application of Stable Isotope Analysis' provides the first comprehensive overview of this exciting addition to forensic scientist's 'toolbox'.

Stable isotopes are essentially twins of elements such as carbon or oxygen with different body weights to each other. Isotope analysisrefers to the identification of isotope signatures found in materials such as soil, food and human tissue.

The isotope signature of food can identify, for example, where it was grown. This information is retained in the bodies of animals who consume it. In turn, the isotope signature of food is passed on again if it that animal is then eaten by a human or other animal.

'As the old cliche says, you are what you eat,' explained Dr Meier-Augenstein. 'We can look at the isotope signature of a person and tell where the food they have been eating is from. We can tell where cows are from because the grass they eat and the water they drink have identifiable signatures. There is also a signature step change to the people who eat the beef from these cows, which we can exploit.

'It can also tell us a lot about their lifestyle - a vegan will have a very different nitrogen signature from someone who has a Platinum membership for their local steakhouse. We can recognise changes in lifestyle, which might show when someone might have become less well-nourished. It all helps to build up a composite picture and can play a major part in identification.'

Dr Meier-Augenstein said that this was particularly useful in cases when even DNA samples fail to determine the identity of a body because no matching DNA fingerprint can be found.

'Our findings can massively narrow the field of possibilities and thus can help bring focus to an investigation,' he continued. 'We can say where they had been living, and what kind of lifestyle they had. If you are looking at the world as a huge haystack then we can tell you in which part you should be searching for the needle.

'In a recent case, a body was found and, by looking at the isotope signature of the victim’s hair, we could tell that he had been in the Ukraine for three months before spending seven months in Germany and eventually winding up in the Gloucestershire/South Wales area.'

Dr Meier-Augenstein explained that, as the use of isotope analysis in forensics was relatively new, the book explains to set out exactly what is currently possible by applying these techniques to a wide range of uses. He added that, while the public may largely be unaware of forensic isotope analysis, they are already benefitting from it in their everyday lives.

'Isotope analysis helps identify source and origin, and is used to test the authenticity of food and drink,' he said. 'Companies make a lot of claims about what is in their products, and isotope analysis helps to ensure that those which do not contain what they claim on the label are identified.

'In the aftermath of a terrorist bombing it can be very difficult to identify the deceased in a multi-ethnic setting but stable isotope analysis can help considerably by grouping remains according to geographic origin.

'Forensic isotope analysis can also be used in counter-terrorism as well as human identification. The shoe-bomber case is probably the best known example. Richard Reid and his co-accused said they had never met but by looking at the isotope signatures of explosives, however, it was possible to show such links existed.

'Illegal drugs can be tested to prove that they were made in the same lab, and we can help to identify where the victims of people trafficking who unfortunately meet a tragic end came from. The application can also be used to identify the source of pollution and ultimately point towards the polluters who commit environmental crimes.

'The book describes actual case examples as well as the results of systematic studies that will serve to underpin the forensic application of stable isotope signatures. This is the first book exclusively dealing with forensic isotope analysis and pulls together all existing research in this emerging field.'

In the book, topics are introduced using examples and real-life case studies such as food quality control where isotope analysis has already had a major impact, in terms of consumer protection. These examples illustrate the underlying principles of isotope profiles or signatures.

Professor Sue Black, Head of the Centre for Anatomy & Human Identification, said, 'Stable isotope analysis is proving to be a very powerful addition to the forensic toolkit. With so much research still requiring to be undertaken, these are very exciting times and this text will lead the way.'

The fascinating work of Professor Black’s team comes under the spotlight in History Cold Case as they work on answering three big questions that the skeletons raise. Who were they? Why did they die? What does their life story tell us that we didn't know before?

Using the full arsenal of modern forensic anthropology, remarkable stories emerge from long forgotten bones, along with the faces of people who haven't been seen for hundreds of years. With forensic science techniques such as carbon dating, stable isotope analysis and facial reconstruction, the team find new layers of detail to add to our knowledge of Britain's past.

'Stable Isotope Forensics: An Introduction to the Forensic Application of Stable Isotope Analysis' is published by Wiley, and is available now. More information is available at

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