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EXCLUSIVE: UK to open first ‘body farm’ for forensic research

Sites that allow the study of human remains have long existed in the United States and have started to appear recently in other countries.

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A skull in the grass at a "body farm."

The body farm in San Marcos, Texas, is one of a handful in the United States.Credit: David J Phillip/AP/Shutterstock

Forensic scientists are working with the British military to open the United Kingdom’s first body farm — a site where researchers will be able to study the decomposition of human remains.

Details are not yet finalized, but the plans are at an advanced stage: project leaders hope this year to open the farm, also known as a forensic cemetery or taphonomy facility, after the discipline devoted to the study of decay and fossilization.

Such sites — which have existed for decades in the United States and more recently in countries including the Netherlands and Australia — generate data on tissue and bone degradation under controlled conditions, along with chemical changes in the soil, air and water around a corpse, to help criminal and forensic investigators. Researchers argue that they provide information crucial to criminal investigations that can’t be obtained from equivalent animal studies, but critics say that they are gruesome and that their value to research is unproven.

In the United Kingdom, a site has been selected and work has started, according to documents obtained by Nature under the Freedom of Information Act. The documents don’t reveal the exact site, but suggest that the facility is being developed on land owned by the Ministry of Defence.

Falling behind

The farms take donated bodies and bury them or leave them on the surface to decompose. Researchers can also set up and study specific circumstances, for example by placing bodies in water or in a vehicle in the farm. The world’s first and most famous farm opened in 1981 in Knoxville, Tennessee; at least six more sites have opened in the United States. In recent years, researchers have set up body farms in Australia and the Netherlands, and Canada will open one this year.

The UK project, which many forensic scientists say is overdue, is led by forensic anthropologist Anna Williams at the University of Huddersfield, a long-standing advocate of such a facility. She says it is essential to stop British forensic and related research from being left behind. A report from a House of Lords’ science and technology committee earlier this week lamented the poor state of UK forensic science and called for investment and a more strategic approach to research.

Williams would not comment on the plans, which she says are at a sensitive stage. But other forensic scientists, including Chris Rogers at the University of Wolverhampton, UK, agree that such a facility is essential: “I think it’s absolutely concrete that we do need a facility here in the UK. We are falling behind the rest of the world.”

He says that the lack of access to human remains hampers his research, and affects how it can be used in court. “I am someone who will be interested in using it,” says Rogers, who noted that he does not know the specifics of the plans.

Media attention

For years, experts in the United Kingdom have tried and failed to establish a taphonomy facility: a decade ago, a proposal from Richard Arnold, head of funeral-services company Omega Supplies in Sutton-on-Sea, Lincolnshire, was scrapped after it failed to win the support of academic researchers. Senior figures in medical research have also expressed concern that media attention on such a site could dissuade people from donating their bodies for uses such as teaching anatomy.

But Amy Rattenbury, a forensic scientist at Wrexham Glyndŵr University who studies ways to find concealed human remains, says the opposite is true. “People want to donate. I get phone calls and e-mails nearly every week from people asking if they can donate their bodies or a loved one’s body.”

Although the documents don’t reveal where the UK facility will be, the defence ministry’s most well-known scientific site is the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down in southern England. The lab analyses chemical weapons but also hosts research into training ‘cadaver dogs’ to find human corpses — work that would be another focus of the new body farm. Porton Down has invested heavily in new laboratory space in recent years, partly to expand its forensic work with police forces. The Ministry of Defence declined to comment on whether the facility was being built at Porton Down.

A view of Porton Down military base.

The Ministry of Defence laboratory at Porton Down is a potential location for the body farm.Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty

The body farm might still require approval from the government’s Human Tissue Authority (HTA), and the documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that officials are wrestling with how the site should be licensed, ahead of its intended opening this year.

British law allows people to donate their bodies for medical and scientific research. But the HTA issues licences for and monitors the use of remains for only specific functions, known as scheduled purposes, and human taphonomy is not currently listed as a scheduled purpose — although Williams is trying to convince the HTA to change that.

An HTA spokesperson said: “We are aware and have been in discussion with other parties who are themselves interested in setting up such a facility in the UK, to provide advice and guidance where helpful.”

‘Grim purpose’

One prominent critic of body farms is Sue Black, a high-profile forensic anthropologist at Lancaster University, UK. Black did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but in her 2018 book All that Remains, she wrote: “I find the concept both gruesome and grim and my unease is heightened when I am invited to take a tour of one of these places as if it were a tourist attraction.” She questions the value of research at body farms, which she says is undermined by small sample sizes and highly variable results.

But in the absence of human remains, Rogers says he must use animals to study decomposition and that these findings would struggle to stand up in court. He uses buried pigs, cows and goats to study how bacteria colonize cartilage and produce crystals called struvites, which he says can improve estimates of time of death. (Such estimates are notoriously difficult after the first 24 hours or so, but can be crucial in helping to identify victims and check the alibis of suspects.) In court, “I would have to say that I think [the processes] happen in humans but I don’t actually know.” And he can’t use results from a US or Australian facility, because their environmental conditions are different from those in Britain.

Shari Forbes, a forensic scientist at the University of Quebec Trois-Rivières, set up the Australian site and moved to Canada last year to establish the facility there. She has been consulted on the UK plans, which she says are part of a welcome global trend. “For the longest time, people assumed that the legislation in the US was somehow different and allowed these facilities that couldn’t happen elsewhere,” she says. “But in the last few years, people have started to realize these places can be legally built.”

Nature 569, 167-168 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01436-8

Updates & Corrections

  • Clarification 09 May 2019: An earlier version of this story said that the UK body farm “still requires approval from the government’s Human Tissue Authority (HTA)”. But although the HTA might in future have the means to regulate such a facility, the opening of a body farm is not currently an activity licensable by the HTA. The story has been updated to clarify this distinction.

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