Researchers in Tennessee believe plants can help find human bodies


Researchers at the University of Tennessee are working to use plants as a tool to determine whether a decomposing human body is nearby.

“While remote sensing of decomposing human bodies is certainly feasible, locating bodies can be extraordinarily difficult under forest canopies,” the paper says. “Taken together, these obstacles often make human body discovery and recovery nearly impossible. Without a body, criminal prosecution is hindered, war crimes are unaccounted for, human rights violations go unpunished, and victims’ families suffer prolonged emotional distress.”

The research team has looked into how dead bodies create a reaction in specific plants that changes their appearance, which could help find missing persons. Researchers say a decomposing human body can have 50 times the nitrogen as fertilizer, making certain plants greener and denser. Scientists now believe they can remotely detect these changes and find bodies that were not previously identifiable.

“Plants have been overlooked in detecting dead people, but what people in agriculture know is that without plants there would be no life,” said Neal Stewart, a plant scientist who conducted the research. “And so here we’re just using what nature gives us: the soil, the plants to find where there was life… it’s an interesting turn on agriculture and farming.”

Roughly 600,000 people go missing in the U.S. each year alone and authorities find an estimated 4,400 unidentified bodies annually.

The team has been working since June to identify types of plants that could be used. Once that has been determined, the team will use drones to track how it reacts in a forested area.