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Analytical Chemistry

Profiling The Scent Of Death

Solid-phase microextraction coupled with gas chromatography/mass spectrometry captures chemical profiles of decomposition

by Celia Henry Arnaud
August 24, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 34

The gold standard for finding dead bodies at crime scenes and disaster sites is cadaver dogs, which are specially trained to use their keen sense of smell to locate victims. A chemical profiling method now under development might avoid the time and expense of training such dogs, according to findings presented at this week's ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C.

The cadaver dogs "do a wonderful job, but we're trying to find another way to develop what they do," said Sarah A. Jones, a forensics graduate student at Pennsylvania State University working with Dan Sykes, the director of the analytical instructional laboratories. "We're trying to find out what they smell and how much of it they smell when they find bodies at crime scenes."

Jones and Sykes are developing a chemical profile of the gases released during different stages of decomposition after death. They hope that this chemical profile will be the first step in the development of a portable device that can replace cadaver dogs. They reported their work last night in a poster session sponsored by the Division of Analytical Chemistry.

Jones collects gases emitted from the bodies of pigs, which go through the same stages of decomposition as humans, starting immediately after euthanization and continuing for a week. She collects the gases on solid-phase microextraction cartridges, analyzes them with gas chromatography/mass spectrometry, and correlates the chemical profiles with the interval since death.

"Our goal is to see if there's a certain profile of compounds that are present at certain phases of decomposition," Jones said. "So far, we've seen a consistent pattern." For example, indole and putrescine (1,4-butanediamine) appear on day three. The researchers have been unable to detect cadaverine (1,5-pentanediamine), another gas associated with decomposition. When they expose the pigs to the elements, the concentrations of the gases decrease. They hope to use this information to determine how environmental conditions affect the chemical profile of death.


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