Still Trying To Identify War Victims, Vietnam Upgrades DNA Testing Centers

New tech could bring closure for the families of 500,000 missing people

Four decades after the war, Vietnam is still working to identify its dead. But so far it’s lacked the sophisticated scientific tools to do so effectively. Now the country is getting a technological upgrade in order to better process samples of victims’ DNA, as Nature News reports.

Half a million Vietnamese people are still missing as a result of the war. As victims’ families are clamoring for answers, unidentified bodies keep turning up when people dig into the earth for farming or construction. Vietnamese scientists have tried to identify the bodies using DNA tests, but it’s not easy—the bodies aren’t well preserved because of haphazard burials, often under hot and humid conditions. So even though scientists have decoded DNA from bodies buried centuries ago, much this 40-year-old DNA has broken down over the decades.

To decode the damaged DNA, Vietnamese scientists need the most current technology, which can better amplify the genetic code. The Vietnamese government has invested $25 million to improve Vietnam’s three DNA processing labs and has contracted German genetic services company Bioglobe for kits that extract, amplify, and sequence DNA, as well as training for the researchers to learn how to use them. Vietnamese researchers will also receive training from the International Commission on Missing Persons. That lab did the DNA-based identification for victims of the Bosnia and Herzegovina conflict in the 1990s, the largest such effort until this one, in Vietnam.

To identify the victims, the researchers will also need base DNA with which to compare the DNA derived from the samples. So the scientists are also launching an outreach program to collect genetic samples from victims’ family members, and to gather information about where more bodies might be buried.

This is the latest of several initiatives intended to improve scientific research in Vietnam. For example, the American Museum of Natural History has set up a lab there to focus on environmental conservation; the World Bank has committed $100 million between 2013 and 2019 to improve the country’s scientific policies.

But experts think this massive scientific undertaking will be enough to transform the country’s scientific landscape. The labs are slated to open by 2017 and are expected to identify between 8,000 and 10,000 people per year.