How a Texas-based lab is helping fight a ‘silent mass disaster’ in Tennessee

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Earlier this week, remains discovered in Knox County in 2022 were identified through forensic genetic genealogy, but that’s just one example of how a lab based in Texas is helping to fight what is now called a “silent mass catastrophe” here in Tennessee.

In March, DNA technology helped scientists at Othram, Inc., a laboratory known as a leader in forensic genetic genealogy, identify the remains of 34-year-old Tony Brown Jr. This news was shared publicly on Tuesday.

Tony Brown (Knox County Regional Forensic Center)

According to Othram, Brown is the 13th person from Tennessee that his technology has been able to help publicly identify. The company’s website also lists the names of approximately 300 people identified by Othram staff.

But Brown was just one person among what the National Institute of Justice calls the nation’s “silent mass disaster.” The term refers to the thousands of cases of missing persons and unidentified remains across the country. Currently, the Knox County Regional Forensic Center is handling more than a dozen cases involving unidentified remains.

“The Namus Database and Namus is the government database that lists missing and unidentified individuals. SO the Namus database has only about 15,000 unidentified individuals and we know there are more unidentified people, whose details have not been captured in Namus. So we’re working with Namus and their contracted organization, RTI, which administers this database and we think it’s very important to our mission to help provide answers to these people who are dying without a name,” said the Othram’s chief of staff, Colby Lasyone.

How do they do?

Lasyone explained the process used by Othram around genealogical databases. The DNA profiles developed by Othram are uploaded to a database, such as FamilyTreeDNA, where they can search for family members based on users who choose to allow law enforcement to use their matches or information. ancestry to further investigate. Those who have previously opted out can also choose to share their DNA profile by uploading their DNA profile to a website like FamilyTreeDNA, DNA Solves or GED Match Pro.

But to get there, the laboratory must first develop the DNA profile. Laysone explained that it starts with entering the details of a case into the Othram portal to help the team understand the circumstances of the case. In Brown’s case, Laysone said the DNA was extracted from skeletal remains.

“We actually have a bone DNA extraction facility that allows us to harvest or extract DNA from skeletal remains. This DNA is then quantified. We go through QC analysis. We call this (a) adequacy analysis. This allows us to understand concentration, quality and any other factors that might influence the development of a DNA profile,” explained Laysone.

Then, with the characteristics of that DNA profile, the team compares it to the thousands of DNA profiles Othram has previously helped create to understand the likelihood of creating a DNA profile usable for forensic genetic genealogy.

“In this particular case, once the DNA was extracted, the suitability analysis was successful. We then established the DNA profile. So this DNA profile was built using forensic-grade genome sequencing, which is our process that results in these ultra-sensitive DNA profiles. And then that was uploaded to the database for matches.

Brown’s case was different

In many cases, when unidentified remains are mentioned, law enforcement also investigates the possibility of foul play. In Brown’s case. Knoxville police initially said their investigation determined no foul play was involved in his death, but at the time his remains could not be identified.

“Our view is that we want to help eliminate uncertainty in any investigation. So in this particular case, the individual was not identified, and it is important to give the names of these people, their family members, their investigators. There are so many lives that are touched by the death of an individual without their identity attached to them,” Lasyone said.

However, in other cases, investigating the person’s identity may be exactly what is needed to move to the next stage of an investigation.

“In many situations, the cause of death may be undetermined or uncertain, until the person is identified. Victimology is therefore important in a homicide case. And if you don’t know who the victim is, then it’s very difficult to investigate, you know, all the important factors that ultimately lead to the person responsible. said Lasyone.

He added that while there are more than 300 cases listed on Othram’s website that they have helped provide answers for, there are still hundreds more that have yet to reach the point of being announced publicly.

To learn more about Othram and the cases they investigate, visit