Leicester researchers work with dogs to sniff out chemicals that identify human remains

Researchers from our University are working with police forces in the UK to improve the accuracy of police dogs in identifying human remains in criminal investigations.

The research, led by PhD student Jonathon Brooks from the Department of Chemistry, looks at the chemical aspects of decomposition, investigating the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) given off when biological matter decomposes.

The team hopes to establish what chemicals the dogs are detecting and whether it is just the one compound or combinations of these compounds.

The researchers have shown that while different tissue types decompose at different rates they share similar VOC profiles. However, the environment that the tissue is exposed to can significantly change this VOC profile - suggesting that the samples that are often being used by police forces aren’t fully representative of buried human remains.

Jonathon explained: "As human remains break down, these small molecules are released into the surrounding environment, many of which can be detected by dogs.

“Depending on the conditions, different compounds will be released, so police search dogs need to be able to recognise a vast array of molecules.”

The researchers are working closely with University Hospitals of Leicester and multiple police forces across the country, to establish how the data can be used in criminal investigations in the future.

The University of Leicester project is the only research within the UK to apply multidimensional chromatography – which improves the ability to separate complex chemical mixtures - to the understanding of decomposition, in collaboration with laboratories in Australia (UTS; University Technology Sydney) and Belgium (University of Liege).