Vietnam Hopes to Start Identifying Its 500,000 War Dead
'Decades later, it may be possible to put names to them'
By Michael Harthorne,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 13, 2016 5:55 PM CST

(Newser) – Unlike the US, Vietnam has identified "just a few hundred" of its soldiers and citizens who died in the Vietnam War, Nature reports. Four decades later, bodies—or what's left of them—are still turning up, and the Vietnamese people are "desperate" for the remains of the dead to be reunited with their families. Thanks to a $25 million investment by the Vietnamese government and the collaboration of scientific companies and organizations around the world, that might finally happen. By next year, "smart DNA technologies" will start being used to identify the bones of the at least 500,000 people still believed to be missing. It's the largest identification effort of its type.

“I never imagined that such a project could ever become possible,” Vietnam veteran and genomics pioneer Craig Venter tells Nature. “We thought of body counts as statistics—now, decades later, it may be possible to put names to them.” But it won't be easy. Shallow graves combined with hot and humid climates mean DNA left inside bones is likely degraded. It will also be difficult to get new DNA to match the recovered DNA to, as soldiers' likely died before they had children and have deceased parents as well. To make things a little easier, German company Bioglobe will be upgrading Vietnamese labs, and the International Commission on Missing Persons will be training Vietnamese scientists. Those involved in the project hope to be able to identify between 8,000 and 10,000 people per year.