The Cutting-Edge Machine That Could Help Crack Cold Cases

A machine that can identify the hair and eye colour of dead people could help to crack DNA mysteries across the country and overseas.

For 30 years, the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine (VIFM) has been the “voice behind the grave”, developing digital techniques to investigate causes of death and save lives. 

On Wednesday it unveiled the Massively Parallel Sequencing (MPS) instrument -- coined the ‘Ion Chef’ -- a machine that examines thousands of DNA fragments to identify key characteristics about the dead.

It's the first time in Australia a unit of its kind is being used in a forensic setting.

Image: 10 News First

"What we can do is take a blood or mortuary sample from the deceased, run it through the unit and generate DNA profiles, including hair and eye colour and ancestry," VIFM molecular biologist Michelle Spiden told 10 News First.

The information can build a profile of the unidentified person and could help police crack cold cases. 

"In a case where all we have is skeletal remains and there is nothing else for the police to go by, we are now able to test these samples with the machine, provide that information and hopefully new leads," said Spiden. 

It takes roughly two days to go from sample to profile. 

Detectives at a home linked to a cold case disappearance in the Blue Mountains this week. It's hoped the machine could help police crack cases of a similar nature. Image: AAP

The MPS is a breakthrough in genetic screening, with information from the machine being used to identify and predict inherited -- and possibly fatal -- conditions.

Spiden said this could be of use during coronial inquests.

"We can look for different cardiac abnormalities or genetic conditions where cause of death may not be able to be established," she said. 

As part of a trial, the machine is already being used on four police cases where human remains have been found.

Molecular biologist Michelle Spiden. Image: 10 News First

When it's fully operational, it is hoped the technology will be used to help solve DNA mysteries around the country and overseas.

It was part of a new line of technologies unveiled by the institute, including virtual autopsies and 3D holographic slicing.

From Black Saturday to the Bali bombing and wars in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, the VIFM has worked on some of the biggest national and global disasters.

VFIM Director Professor Noel Woodford said progress in the field came down to determination and attention to detail.

“The technologies are constantly evolving, they give the deceased a voice, and give justice and comfort to grieving families and relatives where possible."

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Contact the author: ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au