SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – University of Utah researchers use teeth to find unidentified World War II soldiers and bring them home. 

Everyone’s body, including their teeth, contains a record of where they’ve lived and traveled through stable isotopes of common elements. These elements give researchers a chance to bring home unidentified military remains, including POW/MIAs and the more than 81,500 soldiers unaccounted for in conflicts dating back to World War II. 

Through the Forensic Identification of our Nation’s Deceased with Element Mapping, or FIND-EM, project, Gabriel Bowen, professor of geology and geophysics, and his colleagues have been building a nationwide isotope map to help narrow down the geographic origin of unidentified remains. 

“Teeth are often one of the best-preserved parts of the human body after death, which is critical if the goal is to identify remains that may have been buried for nearly a century,” Bowen said. 

Compared to hair, blood or bone, which constantly replace themselves throughout a person’s life, once teeth grow in, they lock in and take in the locality where that child lived. 

“That means we can go to a certain tooth in the dentition, for example, a second molar, and know that the chemical signature reflects an individual’s diet and location during a certain part of childhood, in this case between about three and seven years of age,” Bowen said. “Because the teeth form in a sequence, it’s even possible to piece together information from different teeth to understand relocation during childhood.”

Bowen explained that the challenge now is that while we know that water isotopes vary across the United States, there is not yet enough data to build a map to easily connect a tooth’s location. 

“This is a small piece of the puzzle, but something that our research team is proud to contribute,” Bowen said, “If we can help investigators bring closure to even a few more families, the effort will be worthwhile.”