Vietnam Turns to DNA to Identify the Remains of Those Lost in the War

Technological advances in DNA analysis will make this massive effort possible

Vietnam grave
A girl in Vietnam puts flowers on her father’s grave in 1972 Willie Vicoy/Bettmann/Corbis

The Vietnam War lasted 20 years, and the death toll was harsh. Estimates total in the millions—about 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters, between 200,000 and 250,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and as many as 2 million civilians.

Decades later, bodies of those killed in the war are still turning up in various ways—as land is excavated at construction sites or as rice is harvested from the fields, reports Alison Abbott for Nature. But many of the remains are buried without identification, and as of now, only a few hundred bodies have been identified. Now, the latest DNA technology could help finally put a name to these long-lost fallen soldiers and civilians.

In 2014, the government announced it would invest 500 billion dong ($25 million) in genetically identifying remains. This announcement began the long process of training scientists and upgrading the country's DNA-testing centers that are necessary to launch the program. Finally, this past month, the Vietnamese government signed a training and consultancy contract with a medical-diagnostics company based in Hamburg, Germany, called Bioglobe.

Bioglobe estimates that as many as 1.4 million DNA samples need to be identified, according to a press release. This new move will be “the largest ever systematic identification effort,” Abbot writes.

The plan is to powder bone samples and chemically break down cells to extract the genetic material, Abbot reports. An automated process, using technology from another Germany-based company called Qiagen, will then match the DNA against a large set of genomic markers to build DNA profiles.

Vietnam’s warm, humid climate makes getting quality genetic material a challenge, but Qiagen's technologies are designed for such tough cases. Technological advances now make the task’s obstacles “considerable but tractable,” Bioglobe’s chief executive Wolfgang Höppner tells Nature. 

If contamination still interferes with the identification methods, the team will turn to a slower manual process that was used to identify the remains of people killed during conflict in the 1990s in Bosnia and Herzegovina. That previous project was able to identify more than 20,000 victims, Abbot writes.

To complete the process, the team will need to collect saliva samples from people in Vietnam related to those still missing as well as information on where bodies may be found. It is a massive, challenging undertaking for practical, technological and social reasons, but it is the best hope for closure for thousands of families who lost their loved ones long ago.

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