• New Crime-Busting Detective Is a Blowfly!

GC-MS

New Crime-Busting Detective Is a Blowfly!

May 06 2016

Researchers at the Boston Medical School have come up with an ingenious method of detecting nicotine poisoning as the cause of death — through the humble blowfly. Collaborating with scientists at the University of Torino in Italy, the team found that after ingesting human flesh and blood, the insects consumed the toxic elements contained within it in minute amounts.

However, this ingestion was key to providing a link between nicotine and death in the deed humans — an achievement that had previously proven difficult due to the process of decomposition.

Nicotine as the Deadly Killer

With nicotine so prevalent in our society in the form of cigarettes, we tend to think of it as a mildly dangerous but not lethal threat. The widespread popularity of vaporisers, e-cigarettes, patches smoking and nicotine gum have only served to further normalise the substance.

However, the fact remains that nicotine can be a dangerous and toxic substance — consumed in pure form, it can kill. Anywhere between 30mg – 60mg of the chemical is enough to kill a fully grown adult, while a mere 10mg dose could cause a child’s death. The ease of access to nicotine and the relaxed attitude surrounding it make it a very real danger to the very young.

“When you smoke, you don't get much nicotine, but if a person were to drink a full container from an e-cigarette, they would die,” explained Dr Paola Magni, a forensic scientist at Murdoch University explained in a Murdoch University press release. “Many of these are flavoured to taste like cotton candy or bubble gum, so it is not hard to imagine a child drinking one of these, because of their taste. And we've had cases of kids putting nicotine patches onto their skin, thinking they are stickers or band-aids. There is a big possibility of death if you don't intervene.”

Using Chromatography and Blowflies to Detect Nicotine

While forensic science has evolved considerably over recent years, the natural process of decomposition provides a stumbling block to determining cause of death. If the victim has been deceased for a considerable amount of time, it becomes harder and harder for scientists to pinpoint tell-tale signs of what killed him or her — this is where the blowflies come in.

With the help of gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (GC-MS), the team were able to identify strains of nicotine in the blowfly Caliphoria vomitoria, which feeds upon dead or dying flesh. Furthermore, they were able to determine what effect ingestion of nicotine would have on the larvae and pupae of the insects. In this manner, Dr Magni and her team found that they were able to effectively identify nicotine poisoning as a cause of death through the analysis of just one gram of blowflies.

Forensic science is an exciting and rapidly changing field that uses many different analytical techniques. A discussion on the use of one technique can be found in the article, FT-IR Microspectroscopy in Forensic and Crime Lab Analysis.


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