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‘There are no takers for forensic entomology in India’

Blow flies and bodies in suitcases are the subject of a fascinating study on forensic entomology.

education Updated: Apr 14, 2015 14:05 IST
Ayesha Banerjee

A badly disfigured body has been found in a suitcase in a thickly wooded area. There are no eyewitnesses to the dumping of the suitcase or to the killing and nothing is found on the body to reveal its identity. There are no leads for crime investigators to follow.


So, would you call it a dead end case? Possibly yes, unless you are a student of forensic entomology and are conducting a fascinating study on blow flies (calliphoridae, which lay eggs on putrefying flesh etc and have a metallic blue-green sheen) and how quickly they can access a dead body.

Poulomi Bhadra is doing just that. This MSc student at King’s College London is working with the London Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) on a forensic entomology project on a critical point in a murder case: The time of a victim’s death. To do that, scientists usually take into account temperatures at the scene of the recovery, species of flies found on the body etc. Bhadra, who is from Jamshedpur and did a five-year integrated masters course in biotechnology in St Xavier’s College, Kolkata, before joining King’s, is investigating the possibility of blow flies accessing bodies through the zips in suitcases.

“Blow flies are one of the common insects that attend a dead body, as part of nature’s wonderful recycling system. They can smell the cadaver from very long distances, even before the odour has been detected by human olfactory senses,” says Bhadra. The flies access the body quickly after death, which is why they are of such forensic significance for estimating the time of death. They then feed and lay eggs on the body, which hatch into larvae, which consistently grow in size as they feed on meat. After a certain period of growth, they stop feeding and move away from the food source to form pupate. From this, they emerge in time as adult flies and the life cycle continues. The timeline on this developmental cycle has been documented by scientists under different conditions and they use this data to calculate the time when the fly may have first laid eggs on the body. This is also where Bhadra comes in. “I calculate the delay between when a body is disposed of in a suitcase and when the flies first lay eggs,” she says.

Why suitcases? Suitcase zips appear quite compact to the naked eye and it would seem impossible for flies to get through the zip to reach the body. As such, if you find blow fly larvae on a body inside a suitcase, you could think of two possibilities – that the body was outside the case for some time before being put in; or that the case had been opened frequently and let the flies access the body. Bhadra attempts to address the possibility of eggs being laid on and through the different kinds of zips used in suitcases and if the early larvae that hatch from these eggs can get through the zip to reach the body inside.

The work is “smelly” she says, but she conducts her experiments in an “abandoned, albeit beautiful, tower of the Natural History Museum” in London. One of the rooms in the lab has been converted into an insectary with incubators and fly cages in which flies are reared. Another is a preparatory laboratory where the experiments are prepared. Chicken liver is put in a petri dish and covered with a transparent sheet. A zip is attached to this dish and behaviour of the flies on it is observed. Experiments are also done to see if flies lay eggs on zips wet with only blood or only water, even if there is no bait inside.

A huge perk, feels Bhadra is the fact that she is guided by two of the best entomologists in the UK, her supervisors - Dr Martin Hall from the Natural History Museum, and Dr Andrew Hart, specialist forensic services, MPS. Her research is as yet incomplete and she hopes to publish it soon in a scientific journal.

Bhadra loves her work, and adds, “I haven’t felt so enthusiastic about studying or research in my whole life as I have in the past fewmonths. Now I know I want to pursue a PhD in this field. I am yet awaiting an offer for a research project and funds to undertake the research.”

Being where she was meant to be
King’s forensic science MSc was first offered in 1985. To get there, Bhadra had to get an undergraduate degree first and applied to St Xavier’s (Koklata) department of biotechnology to familiarise herself with the chemical and biological advances in research. The year 2012 was a good time to come to the UK, where the forensic services had just been decentralised. It was a good time to learn from the transition to privatised companies and study the drawbacks and advantages of such a move in real life police work. The British Council was at that time offering a new scholarship for Masters studies in the UK to 60 Indian students and Bhadra was fortunate to receive it and “be able to pursue my dream with financial independence”

‘Tie-up with police motivated me’
What has motivated Poulomi Bhadra to work hard on this project is the collaboration between King’s and the London Metropolitan Police Service (MPS). The fact that her work had a direct application in current police work made a big difference as “even while on the first rungs of an academic career, we get to contribute significantly to the world,” she says.

Dr Barbara Daniel, head of the department of forensic and analytical science at King’s, says King’s researchers work with the MPS, sharing expertise and resources, to enable King’s students to carry out focused research projects based on real crime scene investigation. The aim of these projects is to tackle the challenges in uncovering, collecting and analysing forensic evidence.

“As a leading research institution we are now building on this experience and drawing from other expertise across the college to work with the MPS on expanding our work in digital forensics and cybercrime,” says Dr Daniel

‘There are No takers for forensic entomology in India’

If taken up seriously, crime investigation in India can get a big fillip through forensic entomology, says Dr Meenakshi Bharti, a scientist and pioneer in this field in India, working at the department of zoology, Punjabi University, Patiala. She has so far worked with the police on a murder case in Jabalpore, Madhya Pradesh, in which maggots were used for post-mortem interval (PMI) estimation. Bharti says she would definitely welcome any request for help from police and forensic departments across the country in crime investigation. “We at the Punjabi University and my lab are studying the different stages of decomposition of a human body through insect behaviour.

The estimation of PMI or time since death is done with insect fauna,” she says.

Dr Bharti has done a taxonomic review of flies in the Western Ghats and the Himalayas. From publishing several papers on fly and other insect behaviour, investigating their life cycles and even preparing a checklist of blow flies, she has done it all. “I spend about Rs. 7000 a month to maintaining a website (www.forensicentomologyindia.com) to make people aware of the work we do,” she adds.

So far, unfortunately, “It has been a major block. I am a woman alone taking a lead but not getting anywhere. We need the CBI or the police to reach out to us for help. We can do so much in this field,” she adds.

-- Ayesha Banerjee