Saturday, September 23, 2023

What happens when you donate your body to science?

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Shreya Christina
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Take ribs for example. George stood next to a donor, almost fully skeletonized, whose ribs were cracked. You might surmise that these broken ribs were a clue to how the person had died. But she says the bones in the enclosure were broken by a vulture sitting on it. She wouldn’t have believed it herself if the whole thing hadn’t been caught on camera. Then she pointed to a body on the plateau, at the far end of the fence. That donor, she said, broke their ribs when they died. The fractures looked completely different, the fractures more erratic. That’s because, George said, the fractures occurred in living bone, not after death, when the material is more brittle. In a third body, Passalacqua pointed to a small nail on the rib. That, he said, was also a rib fracture, but one that had healed while the donor was alive.

Chronic diseases and some other diseases can manifest in the bones. Tuberculosis can spread therecausing lesions. Forensic anthropologists can estimate the age of a deceased juvenile by understanding how the skeleton changes over time. Older adults may also have characteristic age characteristics, such as bone loss. But this work is difficult, and there’s still a lot that scientists don’t know. Donors like these help them learn more.

George and Passalacqua’s job is to teach students, along with the law enforcement officers who train there occasionally, what you can learn from a body. Often their first step is to find out if a bone is human. Passalacqua regularly receives text messages from the local police asking about bones they have found – a partial skeleton of a bear’s paw looks shockingly on a person’s hand.

One of the hardest things for forensic anthropologists to do is also one of the most essential: estimate the time elapsed since death. “There are just so many variables that are really hard to explain,” Passalacqua says. For example, a renowned forensic anthropologist will rarely be able to say that a body has been dead for exactly three weeks. More likely is a range of, say, a week to two months. That’s not very useful for law enforcement officers trying to solve a crime.

A donor body under a tarp at the decomposition facility


By the time I arrived, Donor X was already in serious disrepair, but every day this donor will teach living people something. When little of the bone remains, the students carefully remove the body from the FOREST and take it to the lab. The bones are cleaned by hand and perhaps simmered gently to remove the last bits of tissue. They are displayed and examined. And then they’re wrapped, the delicate pieces put in cheesecloth bags and stored in the university’s collection, labeled in identical cardboard boxes.

But for now, Donor X will remain in place and slowly become a unique microbiome. Dense trees filter the sunlight. The vultures aren’t there that morning, so as we walk and the students quietly examine a donor’s bones, the only other sounds we hear are the calls of crickets.

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