GMU students hope bee honey will help find human remains

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — A group of George Mason University forensic science students are planning an experiment in hopes of demonstrating how honey can help authorities find missing human remains.

Anthony Falsetti, an associate professor in GMU’s forensic science program, and others say that bee honey proteins contain treasure troves of biochemical information that are already widely used by scientists and government agencies to detect illegal pesticides in green products and fruits, or to measure the amounts of heavy substances. metallic or microplastic pollutants in the air.

“Everything in the environment enters the factory. …Bees take a sample of the environment wherever they go,” Falsetti said.

Falsetti said his GMU forensic science students will use a similar strategy to collect data in their study, but they will be looking for human proteins they believe also exist in the small samples of honey they will collect later. for analysis.

The new experiment is taking place at the university’s outdoor forensic laboratory, slated to open this spring at the George Mason Science and Technology Campus in Manassas. The 5-acre facility includes a fenced-in indoor “body farm,” where students will soon help bury corpses provided to the university by the Virginia State Anatomical Program. The bodies will be placed in pre-dug graves of varying depths, already prepared in advance by the students.

“(The remains) are being examined by the state to make sure they don’t have a contagious disease,” said Stafford resident Mary Ellen O’Toole, retired FBI special agent and current director of the George Mason University Forensic Science Program. “The interior 1 acre will not disturb the surrounding community.”

Falsetti said there are only eight US universities where students use human remains in forensic experiments.

Last November, about 80 varieties of plants were strategically planted by students and researchers near the places where the human remains will be deposited. In late spring, the flowers will bear highly fragrant white and yellow flowers, neither typical of campus nor native to Virginia. With a bee flight radius of just over three miles, Falsetti said the unique types of flowers near the remains will help students maintain accountability for bees that have landed on special flora.

The students have already collected honey samples from the existing group of hives on the Manassas campus and will use the data from these samples as a reference in the upcoming experiment. Falsetti expects the new honey crop to be ready for sampling in late spring or early summer.

Alessandra Luchini, a professor at the university’s Center for Applied Proteomics and Molecular Medicine, has perfected the method to efficiently extract countless proteins from bee honey which are then analyzed for the presence of human remains.

“Proteins can tell us a more accurate story of which organisms have touched the honey and which organisms the bees have interacted with,” Luchini said.

Luchini said the same technology that has been used for years in cancer and infectious disease research will be used in the GMU bee experiment. Luchini said the experiment centered on a huge mass spectrometer that scientists at the university maintain and operate to analyze proteins.

“It spits out hundreds of thousands of different proteins without any presumption,” Luchini said. “It’s just a very unbiased method.”

Falsetti said the discovery of human remains in honey samples could one day help criminal investigators across a wide area in search of a missing person. He said samples of honey could be taken from beehives in an area believed to contain a body and then analyzed. As bees operate within the wide range of their hives, the locations of existing hives could then be triangulated to help investigators determine an approximate location where the body could be found.

“It’s a good area,” Luchini said. “It depends on the frequency of hives.”

Keith Tignor, the state beekeeper with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, estimates there are ‘2,500 to 3,000, if not more’ people involved in beekeeping. across the state. With so many hives already in place and operating in a hobby that is gaining popularity in some places, many ordinary citizens could one day help authorities solve a crime.

“We can use existing hives and the sampling is not elusive, it’s just a teaspoon of honey,” Luchini said. “Give us a spoonful of honey and you could help solve the biggest crime of the century.”

Falsetti said the Manassas campus houses about 300 undergraduate forensic science students and 90 graduate students. O’Toole said students in today’s forensic science programs are well-versed in courses such as chemistry, biology, physics and math, and said about 85% of students are women.

“When they reach their junior and senior year, and certainly if they’re graduate students, they start learning how to apply this science to crime scenes,” O’Toole said.

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