All the King's horses and all the King's men
August 18, 2012 10:33 AM   Subscribe

Suppose there is a person who was broken into many pieces. Scientists can look at bones and say where on the body they came from. Can they do the same for pieces of flesh and muscle?

I'm just curious, several years after having seen the result of a hitchhiker wearing dark clothes on an Interstate, and police putting plastic flags all over the grass where they found chunks of the poor fellow. If someone had an interest in putting him back together with most parts reasonably close to where they used to be (minus the parts stuck to tires of cars that kept driving, of course), could they do it?
posted by bugmuncher to Science & Nature (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Bacterial populations vary over the body (for instance, you usually have only about 17% similarity between the cultures on the skin of your left and right hand), so if not too much time has passed you could probably identify similarity of bacterial population to get an idea of what pieces of skin used to be connected. Of course there are also going to be shapes of muscles and other similarities, a 1'' piece taken from your hand (with various tendons going through it) will be different than one from your shoulder or back... not sure how easy this would be to do.
posted by Lady Li at 11:15 AM on August 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Consider how easy it is to roughly identify various cuts of meat— I'd think that a surgeon (or some appropriate forensic specialist) would be able to identify the origin of most bits of flesh simply by looking at them closely. In the case of your hitchhiker, maybe not, if they've been pounded too thoroughly.
posted by hattifattener at 11:22 AM on August 18, 2012

As a med student, I would guess that they would be able to do this, or that the technology could easily be developed for them to be able to do this. Consider, for example, that the brain is made mostly of neurons and support cells - that's very different from a muscle, for example. Additionally consider, for example, when a person has a heart attack. Your heart muscle cells break down, and release certain enzymes into your bloodstream - troponins, CK-MB, etc., and aren't really released by any other cells in the body. By analyzing the concentrations of these enzymes in your bloodstream, doctors can tell whether or not you're having a heart attack. So my immediate response would be that there should be a way to do this, but I'm not sure if we know the correct amounts of such enzymes or whatever other proteins in every part of the body to do this.
posted by 254blocks at 11:52 AM on August 18, 2012

Best answer: It would depend on the size of the pieces, but to a degree, yes. It's quite possible.

To begin with, there are different types of muscle in your body. the person trying to put the body together would easily be able to tell organ muscle from excercise muscle; they're very distinct. So those would be the first two piles.

You'd be able to theoretically get a lot of information by the tone of the muscles, especially if you knew something about the person's lifestyle. The muscles that have more tone are the ones that the person uses more: postural muscles of the back, and some of the muscles of the shoulders and neck, have the most tone for many people. But if they were, say, a runner, their leg muscles would also have quite a bit of tone (this is a gross oversimplification).

Muscles also have different "patterns" of tissue, and very distinct shapes. Some converge or diverge. Some have horizontal or oblique fibres. If you could get a large enough piece of muscle- ideally with the tendon still attached- to get an idea of the fibre patterns, you could certainly tell quite a few of them apart.

If you were lucky, a lot of the muscles would still be attached, at least in part, to the bones via tendons. All of those would be relatively easy to identify, and if you were lucky and the splattered bits had generally kept their shape, you could use the clues that I just mentioned to match the bits to the pieces already attached to the bones.

So, in a totally theoretical situation where the elements retained their nature, yes, you probably could. It would be like putting together a revolting bloody puzzle of death.

In real life? Probably not so much.
posted by windykites at 12:01 PM on August 18, 2012

I forgot to add this: if the person were carefully carved up like meat is, and the individual muscles retained most of their shape, it would be really easy. Most individual muscles have really definitive shapes, thicknesses, tones, and sizes.

I think this is why I don't like to eat cuts of meat. It's too much like people.
posted by windykites at 12:05 PM on August 18, 2012

This might not be exactly what you're looking for, but a Mefite once had to do more or less exactly this only with pieces of three people blasted apart by artillery. They developed a low tech strategy.
posted by Blasdelb at 5:07 PM on August 18, 2012

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