Courtesy of Flickr Hivemind

A woman has been missing for ten weeks. Her kidnappers murder her, torch the body until it is unrecognizable, then dump it in the woods, confident that the charred, black chunks of tissue that remain are too scorched for police to identify. No body, no crime.

Such was the situation faced by police recently in Mexico. They had found the charred husk of body and nearby, the high school ring of a woman who had been missing for ten weeks. Unfortunately, the fire had thoroughly consumed any usable tissue from which to extract a DNA sample.

It was only after forensic pathologists María de Lourdes Chávez-Briones, Marta Ortega-Martínez, and their teams were presented with testimony from a surprise star-witness that positive identification of the burnt body was achieved. So solid was the evidence that it is being used in a court case. Who was this star-witness and what did he/she present?

Star-witnesses for forensic science

Courtesy of Flickr user kahunapulej

Maggots! The pathologists were able to isolate human DNA from the intestines of maggots taken off the singed body. Maggots, or flies in their larval states, have long been used to determine time frames in the decomposition of bodies and recently the contents of their bellies have also been analyzed to figure who, exactly, they had been eating. This case is the first time victim DNA taken from maggots’ stomachs will be used in a court of law.

The researchers used the DNA to figure out the body was female, and then used the missing woman’s father’s DNA to conduct a paternity test. The results were 99.7% positive the body belonged to his unfortunate daughter.

The more pathologists delve into finding uses for the decomposers that populate rotting human bodies, the more these creatures are proving to be a boon to criminal and scientific investigations. The next time you see a maggot, after shivering in disgust, remember the invaluable information these little varmints are able to give us.

Another awesome use for maggots: Maggot therapy