Comparison of DNA yield and STR success rates from different tissues in embalmed bodies

Int J Legal Med. 2017 Jan;131(1):61-66. doi: 10.1007/s00414-016-1405-5. Epub 2016 Jun 23.


Formalin fixation is commonly used to preserve tissue sections for pathological testing and embalming cadavers for medical dissection or burial. DNA extracted from formalin-fixed tissues may also provide an alternative source of genetic material for medical diagnosis and forensic casework, such as identifying unknown embalmed human remains. Formaldehyde causes DNA damage, chemical modifications, and degradation, thereby reducing the quantity and quality of DNA available for downstream genetic analyses. By comparing the DNA yield, level of DNA degradation, and short tandem repeat (STR) success of various tissue types, this study is the first of its kind to provide some guidance on which samples from embalmed bodies are likely to generate more complete STR profiles. Tissue samples were dissected from three male embalmed cadavers and included bone, cartilage, hair, muscle, internal organs, skin, teeth, and nail clippings. DNA was purified from all samples using the QIAamp® FFPE Tissue Kit (Qiagen), quantified using the QuantiFiler® Trio DNA Quantification kit (Life Technologies), and genotyped using the GlobalFiler® PCR Amplification Kit (Life Technologies). Results of this study showed variation in DNA quantity and STR success between different types of tissues and some variation between cadavers. Overall, bone marrow samples resulted in the highest DNA yields, the least DNA degradation, and greatest STR success. However, several muscle, hair, and nail samples generated higher STR success rates than traditionally harvested bone and tooth samples. A key advantage to preferentially using these tissue samples over bone (and marrow) and teeth is their comparative ease and speed of collection from the cadaver and processing during DNA extraction. Results also indicate that soft tissues affected by lividity (blood pooling) may experience greater exposure to formalin, resulting in more DNA damage and reduced downstream STR success than tissues under compression. Overall, we recommend harvesting from selected muscles (gastrocnemius, rectus femoris, flexor digitorum brevis, masseter, brachioradialis) or fingernails for human identification purposes.

Keywords: DNA damage; DNA degradation; Embalmed; FFPE; Forensic DNA; STRs.

MeSH terms

  • Bone Marrow / chemistry
  • Bone and Bones / chemistry
  • Cartilage / chemistry
  • DNA / analysis*
  • DNA Degradation, Necrotic
  • DNA Fingerprinting*
  • Embalming*
  • Fixatives
  • Formaldehyde
  • Hair / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Microsatellite Repeats*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / chemistry
  • Nails / chemistry
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Skin / chemistry
  • Tendons / chemistry
  • Tooth / chemistry


  • Fixatives
  • Formaldehyde
  • DNA