Researchers at the U are using chemistry in teeth to identify soldier remains

Nov 11, 2022, 6:21 PM | Updated: 8:44 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — More than 81,000 American troops remain missing from our country’s conflicts dating back to World War II. Efforts to find them are ongoing.

Researchers at the University of Utah are using the chemistry in teeth to develop a tool to help identify remains and unite them with their families.

“The promise is made to them when they sign up that they will not be left behind, and so really what everybody involved in this effort is doing is trying to make good on that promise,” said Gabriel Bowen, the lead researcher on this project, and a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah.

Our teeth, much like an accent, tell part of the tale of where we’ve lived without our even knowing it, Bowen said. Working with a team of eight researchers, he is analyzing the chemistry of teeth as a way to help identify the remains of lost soldiers.

Professor Gabriel Bowen

Professor Gabriel Bowen, the lead researcher in Project FIND-EM is preparing for chemical analysis of donated teeth. (KSL TV)

“We’re trying to use the natural chemistry of a body as an indicator of where someone has lived in the past,” Bowen said.

The isotopes in our teeth contain a record of where we’ve lived, and those environments, the professor said. Our teeth record the history of where we’ve lived through the water.

“That chemistry is locked into the teeth,” Bowen said. “It’s preserved throughout life, and it can be preserved for decades after an individual dies. We just have to reach in and measure that chemistry.”

His research team, working with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, hopes to expand the ability of investigators to determine the hometown of unidentified troops. It’s called Project FIND-EM or, Forensic Identification of our Nation’s Deceased with Element Mapping.

Typically, investigators have some information about a group of soldiers they are trying to identify.

“Where the chemistry of the teeth comes into play is we can analyze that chemistry and we can use it to exclude or highlight certain parts of the United States as a potential home for that individual.”

The researchers are using donated molars from across the country to build a map of where those teeth came from. They can then compare the teeth from unidentified remains with those on the map to narrow down their origin.

“We are providing a piece of the puzzle that helps them focus their search image, and make that identification much more effectively,” the researcher said.

It’s a work in progress — they’re developing the scientific knowledge that’s needed to apply this in case work.

“If we can get that going as quickly as we hope to, this could be operational in two years and contributing routinely to the identification efforts at that point,” Bowen said.

Their research is adding to the work of many others.

“We’re just hoping to provide another tool in the toolbox that makes that work more effective,” Bowen said.

They need more molars from across the country to build their map.

They need more molars from across the country to build their map. You can get more information on Project FIND-EM by clicking here.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

Local News

emergency lights...
Madison Swenson

Police investigating burglary at Riverdale car dealership

Police are investigating after cars, cash and other miscellaneous items were stolen from the Ken Garff Dealership in Riverdale.
16 hours ago
The Salt Lake City valley buildings are seen with the Olympic rings on the mountain behind the city...
Karah Brackin

Utah may be considered for 2030, 2034 winter Olympic Games

The International Olympic Committee wrapped up three days of meetings on Wednesday. During that time, they discussed everything from rotating the Olympic Games within a pool of host cities to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Utah may be an option for future winter games.
16 hours ago
Jana Clyde, a nurse, appears in court in February 2018. An 8th District judge on Monday found her n...
Emily Ashcraft, KSL.com

Judge says Utah nurse accused of causing inmate’s death is not guilty

A woman charged with negligently causing the death of a Duchesne County Jail inmate in 2016 is not guilty of the crime, a judge ruled Monday.
16 hours ago
(Derek Petersen/KSL TV)...
Casey Scott, KSL TV

Giving away free gas cards with Casey Scott

It's Wednesday, which means Casey Scott is handing out free gas cards and bro hugs.
16 hours ago
Wednesday's Child is Domanic...
Shara Park

Wednesday’s Child: Domanic wants to connect with a family that loves him

At Bricks and Minifigs in South Jordan you’ll find a treasure trove of LEGO® sets. From special characters to exotic cars, it’s heaven on earth for 10-year-old Domanic.
16 hours ago
Provo City Center Temple dedication Sunday, March 20, 2016. (Scott G Winterton/Deseret News)...
Pat Reavy, KSL.com

Man arrested for breaking into Provo temple, claiming he was just cold, police say

A man was arrested Tuesday after police say he broke a window to get into a Provo Latter-day Saint temple. Officers noted that nothing was taken and the man claimed he was just cold.
16 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

notebook with password notes highlighted...
PC Laptops

How to Create Strong Passwords You Can Actually Remember

Learn how you can create strong passwords that are actually easy to remember! In a short time you can create new ones in seconds.
house with for rent sign posted...
Chase Harrington, president and COO of Entrata

Top 5 reasons you may want to consider apartment life over owning a home

There are many benefits of renting that can be overshadowed by the allure of buying a home. Here are five reasons why renting might be right for you.
Festive kitchen in Christmas decorations. Christmas dining room....
Lighting Design

6 Holiday Decor Trends to Try in 2022

We've rounded out the top 6 holiday decor trends for 2022 so you can be ahead of the game before you start shopping. 
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Take this quiz before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Diverse Group of Energetic Professionals Team Meeting in Modern Office: Brainstorming IT Programmer...
Les Olson

Don’t let a ransomware attack get you down | Protect your workplace today with cyber insurance

Business owners and operators should be on guard to protect their workplace. Cyber insurance can protect you from online attacks.
Hand turning a thermostat knob to increase savings by decreasing energy consumption. Composite imag...
Lighting Design

5 Lighting Tips to Save Energy and Money in Your Home

Advances in lighting technology make it easier to use smart features to cut costs. Read for tips to save energy by using different lighting strategies in your home.
Researchers at the U are using chemistry in teeth to identify soldier remains