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In Search for Human Bodies, Plants May Be Key

Chemicals from decomposing remains may trigger visible changes in vegetation
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 8, 2020 10:35 AM CDT

(Newser) – Researchers are toying with a new idea that could transform grueling and expensive body-recovery missions, and it involves what you might call cadaver plants. Yes, plants. Neal Stewart, a biologist at the University of Tennessee, has long been interested in the ways plants sense and respond to stresses. Now, he and colleagues believe plants—even the heavy vegetation that often hinders recovery missions—might be used as a "search asset" based on the way they react to chemicals like nitrogen, per CNN. Research at UT's Forensic Anthropology Center, also known as the "Body Farm," has already shown that nitrogen from decomposing bodies causes plants to produce more chlorophyll, usually resulting in greener leaves. The idea is that a better understanding of how plants react to other chemicals could point to human remains that might otherwise go unfound.

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The theory was laid out Thursday in Trends in Plant Science. Researchers believe drugs or metals leaking from a body might cause subtle changes in tree and shrub canopies. Another hypothesis is that "plant succession might favor exotic invasive and weedy plants" that have extensive root systems and can quickly adapt to changing environments. Drones could identify these "cadaver decomposition islands" in forested areas, covering nearly a third of all land on Earth, or in regions with ongoing conflicts, where it "may be unsafe for forensic teams to enter," the study notes. The hope is that this will lead to faster and safer missions—though it'll likely be several years before the idea is put into practice, per CNN. Researchers first need to find a way to recognize human bodies as distinct from other large mammals, like deer, as Stewart writes at the Conversation. (Read more plants stories.)

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