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Subspecialties Forensics, Analytical science, Biochemistry and molecular biology, Technology and innovation

Faster, More Objective Maggot Analysis

Although academically interesting to some, it’s difficult to see the relevance of maggots to the average laboratory medicine professional. For those who work in forensics, though, the link is clear – maggots on a cadaver can help investigators determine when and where death occurred. In some cases, such as neglect, they can even help establish a person’s physical condition prior to death.

The drawback? Maggot analysis is time-consuming, resource-intensive, and requires the input of expert entomologists who can distinguish between different species. In many cases, this requires raising living maggots to their mature fly form to make species distinction easier. But not all cadavers yield live maggots – and, even in those that do, identification can be subjective and different species may resemble one another too closely for reliable classification.

Maggots on a cadaver can help investigators determine when and where death occurred. In some cases, they can even help establish a person’s physical condition prior to death.

Is there a better way? That’s the question researchers from the State University of New York and John Jay College of Criminal Justice sought to answer. By suspending combinations of maggots in ethanol and using direct analysis with real-time high-resolution mass spectrometry (DART-HRMS), they were able to identify multiple species of maggot in combination, each with its own highly reproducible chemical signature (1).

Next, the investigators applied machine learning in the form of an aggregated hierarchical conformal predictor – a technique used to classify objects. After training on a hierarchical classification tree, the conformal predictor was able to identify individual species in mixtures of up to six different maggot species, with confidence limits between 80 and 99 percent.

The new method combines analytical science and artificial intelligence to both speed up and increase the objectivity of maggot analysis – and thus, hopefully, extract information from cadavers that could lead to more solved cases and fewer flies in the investigative ointment.

Fly and beetle larvae on a five-day-old animal corpse. Credit: Paul Venter.

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  1. S Beyramysoltan et al., Anal Chem, [Epub ahead of print] (2020). PMID: 32091197.

About the Author

Michael Schubert

While obtaining degrees in biology from the University of Alberta and biochemistry from Penn State College of Medicine, I worked as a freelance science and medical writer. I was able to hone my skills in research, presentation and scientific writing by assembling grants and journal articles, speaking at international conferences, and consulting on topics ranging from medical education to comic book science. As much as I’ve enjoyed designing new bacteria and plausible superheroes, though, I’m more pleased than ever to be at Texere, using my writing and editing skills to create great content for a professional audience.

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