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Dentistry, Alive or Not

Author: Shirley Chen


Of the many branches in dentistry, some of the commonly known include prosthodontics, orthodontics, endodontics, periodontics, pediatrics, and oral and maxillofacial surgery.1 However, there is one field of dentistry that is less known, but no less significant.


Imagine a crime scene where only the bones and teeth of an individual remain, or where the only clue left by a perpetrator is a bite mark on a piece of cheese. How can these crimes be solved? How can we identify who the teeth belonged to? Is it possible to identify someone from a bite mark? Here is where dentistry comes in.


Forensic dentistry, also known as forensic odontology, uses dental and related knowledge to find solutions to legal problems, including civil and criminal cases.2 The dentition of a deceased can be compared to a dental cast made previously.3 Even if only a single tooth or fragments of a jaw are available, it may be enough to identify someone by comparing them to dental x-rays.3 Nowadays, it is common to have foreign bodies in the mouth, such as implants, various filling materials (for example, amalgam and composite), and crowns. These can also be helpful in identifying an individual.2 Additionally, the dentition can be used to to estimate the age of an individual, living or deceased.2,3


Other identifying information can come from structures around the teeth. These include characteristics of one’s maxillary and frontal sinuses, sutures in the skull, and soft tissues such as the lips and palatal rugae.2 Of course, DNA2 is vital for identification purposes. In cases of domestic abuse, important information can be gained from dental injuries or dental hygiene neglect.3


One of the important areas of forensic dentistry is bitemark analysis.2,3 Each person leaves a unique mark with their bite, which depends on many factors including the angles of the teeth, number of teeth, distance between teeth, and completed dental work. Bite marks can be found in food, chewing gum, miscellaneous objects such as pens, as well as on victims of assault, domestic violence, abuse, rape, homicide, and infanticide.3,4 However, it is important to realize that the accuracy of bitemark analysis has been long debated, given the great deformation of bite marks that can occur on skin and soft tissues which distorts easily, as well as the subjectivity in the evaluation of bite marks.4,5 In addition to the physical technique of evaluating and comparing bite marks, DNA collection and genotyping from the saliva surrounding the bite mark is part of the protocol of bitemark analysis and reduces its subjectivity.3,4


The role of dentists is not limited to helping others maintain a healthy oral environment. Dentists can aid in solving crimes, identifying the deceased, and bringing closure to victims and those that care for them. Although forensic dentistry may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the word “dentistry,” it is a respectable and amazing field of study.



Resources


[1] Dental specialties. Canadian Dental Association. (n.d.). Retrieved Aug 20, 2021 from https://www.cda-adc.ca/en/oral_health/specialties/.


[2] Forensic Dentistry Program. McGill University Faculty of Dentistry Continued Education. (n.d.). Retrieved Aug 20, 2021 from https://www.mcgillcde.ca/forensic/.


[3] Odontology. American Academy of Forensic Sciences. (n.d.). Retrieved Aug 20, 2021 from https://aafs.org/Home/Resources/Students/Sections/Odontology.aspx.


[4] Verma, A. K., Kumar, S., & Bhattacharya, S. (2013). Identification of a person with the help of bite mark analysis. Journal of oral biology and craniofacial research, 3(2), 88–91. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jobcr.2013.05.002


[5] Bite Mark Evidence. California Innocence Project. (n.d.). Retrieved Aug 20, 2021 from https://californiainnocenceproject.org/issues-we-face/bite-mark-evidence/.