Dental Identification and Forensic Odontology: A Look at Forensic Dentistry

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If you’re one of the hundreds of millions of Americans that listen to true crime, chances are you’ve heard about a case that was solved by forensic dentistry. Forensic dentistry, also called forensic odontology, is the application of dentistry within the criminal justice system. It is typically used to identify unknown victims or perpetrators. More broadly, it refers to the proper handling and examination of dental evidence, which is later presented in a court of law. Forensic odontology is also often used to identify the victims of mass disasters.


Dental Identification 

There are several methods for using dentistry to identify a person:

  • A forensic dentist can extract DNA from the pulp chamber to crossmatch and identify a victim.
  • Investigators can examine dental records to match them to a corpse, or to match a bite mark to a perpetrator.
  • A forensic dentist can utilize ameloglyphics, or enamel rod patterns. Like fingerprints, these are unique to each individual. Unlike fingerprints, they are highly resistant, and cannot be intentionally burned or cut to change the pattern. Similar to collecting fingerprints, investigators take enamel rod “prints.”
  • Dental experts can identify people using amelogenin gene. This gene is extracted from the pulp of a tooth and then analyzed using a polymerase chain reaction to determine the sex of the victim. Blood is often unavailable in the examination of deceased victims, but teeth and bones provide accurate DNA access.
  • The mandibular bone is another excellent source for DNA analysis. It’s easily accessible and removable, and provides accurate identification of a person’s age and sex.
  • More recently, forensic dentists have begun to use radiographic tooth and jaw identification. Radiographs taken post-mortem are compared to radiographs taken while the victim was alive. However, it’s important to note that dental restorations may leave artifacts on radiographs, which can threaten the reliability of this method.
  • Ultraviolet lights can help differentiate between virgin tooth structure and restorations. The mandibular ramus and mastoid process can be used to determine someone’s sex, while the eruption status of teeth can be used to determine age. In fact, this is an even more accurate way of determining age than examining the skeleton.


Why Are Teeth a Good Source of DNA?

Not only are teeth often the only source of DNA available in fragmented remains, but also their unique composition and location provides added protection to DNA. Sitting in the jawbone, they are insulated from much of the degradation that happens to bones.


Bite Mark Analysis

Bite mark analysis is a sub-specialty of forensic odontology that focuses on identifying perpetrators by comparing dental records to a bite mark left on the victim or at the scene – for example, in food or chewing gum. Bite marks may also be found on perpetrators themselves, left by the victim in an act of self-defense. A common method of comparing bite marks is the use of transparent overlays. These record the biting edges of a suspect’s teeth, which can then be compared to the crime scene sample. Bite mark analysis is not always an exact science, as the skin itself tends to have irregularities that cause distortions in bite marks. This science is typically used in conjunction with other investigative methods to ensure a more accurate conclusion.


Forensic dentistry is quite literally a matter of life and death, so it’s important to use products that you can trust. Forensic odontologists can count on Richmond Dental and Medical to provide the durable products they need to identify victims and bring them home.