Last Lac-Mégantic victims may be ID'd by special DNA testing

The families of eight of the 47 victims of the train derailment and explosions in Lac-Mégantic, Que., are still waiting for closure, but a Thunder Bay, Ont., forensic lab may be able to help.

A Thunder Bay, Ont., lab is working to identify last 8 victims using mitochondrial DNA

Amarjit Chahal of Orchid PRO-DNA in Thunder Bay, Ont. is working to confirm the identities of the last eight victims of the deadly train derailment and explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Que. (Adam Burns/CBC)

The families of eight of the 47 victims of the train derailment and explosions in Lac-Mégantic, Que., are still waiting for closure, but a Thunder Bay, Ont. forensic lab may be able to help.

Amarjit Chahal is the lab director and technical leader of Orchid PRO-DNA, the lab contracted by the Quebec coroner’s office to help identify the last remaining victims of the July 6 disaster.

“There are still remains from eight persons that are unidentified,” Chahal said.

“So if we can help identify these persons, help provide closure to the families, just from a personal point of view this is kind of a great feeling.”

The funerals of three more victims of the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster were held at Sainte-Agnés Church yesterday. Eight victims have not yet been identified. (CBC)
The July 6 train derailment incinerated the downtown area of Lac-Mégantic and killed 47 people. (CBC)

He said his lab is the only one in Canada that does mitochondrial DNA tests, and it's one of three labs working on the Lac-Mégantic file. The other two labs are in New York and Bosnia.

The difference between that and more conventional nuclear DNA testing is that mitochondrial DNA is smaller than nuclear DNA and more resistant to degradation caused by extreme heat, and the test requires only a tiny sample of human remains.

There are two copies of nuclear DNA in each human cell, but there are between 100 and 1,000 copies of mitochondrial DNA.

“So if we have only a tiny amount of material alive in those burned bone fragments, we can still get the mitochondrial DNA profile,” Chahal said.

The identification technology has been used in mass disasters like the Sept. 11 attacks and in identifying the remains of soldiers from the First and Second World Wars.

Chahal hopes to have results of the testing within a few weeks.

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