Archive for the ‘DNA Detective’ Category


DNA Designed for Human Rights

Tuesday, October 20th, 2015

In May, human traffickers prevented thousands of Bangladeshi and ethnic Rohingya migrants from entering Thailand and Malaysia, despite extreme abuses aboard the ships including sexual assault of children and homicide. In April, thousands of northern Africans fled Libya to cross the Mediterranean, resulting in thousands ending up at the bottom of the sea. Last summer, extreme gang violence forced a surge of Central American children to migrate unaccompanied through Mexico and into the U.S. And in April 2014, the world was shocked by the brutal kidnapping of hundreds of young Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram.

Exploitation of vulnerable people around the world is a continuing reality, and unlikely to be resolved with any single effort. But measures can be taken to provide resources and assistance to address these human rights abuses. In the world of forensic sciences, this can include identification of displaced or deceased persons, and the reunification of children with their biological relatives.

Mass disasters and terrorist attacks in the last decade or so have helped to refine genetic technologies and tools necessary for kinship analysis, especially in challenged samples, advancing human rights efforts in post-mortem identification and verification of biological relationships. Improved technologies have enabled, for example, post-conflict identification efforts of victims in mass graves following several wars over the last 70 years.

However, we see few examples of our grand genomic technologies being applied to living vulnerable persons at-risk or suffering from human rights abuses, like orphans displaced by Argentina’s Dirty War, for example. The abuses we have witnessed in the past 18 months—and more are expected to come—deserve the attention and application of our refined sciences, and a cohesive response from the forensic community, armed with technology to apply the appropriate tools given the context of the crisis and the specific vulnerabilities of the population.

Valiant efforts have already been made to pilot DNA applications to high-risk populations and human trafficking cases. Five years ago, Forensic Magazine highlighted DNA-PROKIDS, a collaboration between the University of Granada and the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI), which has provided resources, database technology and training to multiple nations in need of kinship analysis for child trafficking cases. UNTCHI also has partnered with Dallas law enforcement agencies to collect DNA of at-risk sex workers as a pre-emptive, post-mortem identification program.

Project KARE has operated a similar program in Edmonton, Alberta since 2003, collecting thousands of samples from sex workers.7 Forensic Magazine also covered the pilot efforts that have been made to explore the technical feasibility of using DNA in high-risk populations and for identification of missing persons, mass disasters and deceased migrants.

Stemming from these efforts and others, several human identification databases now exist or are under development to enable post-mortem identification in high-risk populations—some that parallel, compliment or are entirely independent of CODIS. Database-sharing tools and strategies that respect jurisdictional boundaries, minimize privacy intrusions and maximize identification results must be developed and shared with the forensic community. It is imperative that efforts of stakeholders at all levels work together to have the greatest efficiency and effect…

… To read the full article by Sara Katsanis, please click here.

SOURCE: This article was first published by Forensic Magazine on 25 September 2015.

Can you determine race from a fingerprint?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

For years, forensic scientists have studied differences between latent fingerprints and have used this information to identify unique patterns. Now, a new study takes a closer look at the minutiae of fingerprints and has come to an astounding conclusion: latent prints can provide clues to a person’s race.

The study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology takes a new anthropological angle on a key identification method which may hold promise for law enforcement – and which has already attracted attention from several agencies, according to the researchers from North Carolina State University.

“By studying variation between groups, such as sexes and ancestry groups, on the basis of minutiae, this study provides information that is useful to latent fingerprint examiners,” said Nichole Fournier, lead author of the study, in an email to Forensic Magazine. “The results show that minutiae can tell us the probable ancestry of a person who leaves behind a latent fingerprint.”

The right index fingers of 243 individuals – split equally by gender, and between African-American and European-American backgrounds – were analyzed in the study. Level 1 details are pattern types and ridge counts.

But researchers focused on the Level 2 differences, which include bifurcations, where the ridge splits. These more-detailed factors were cross-referenced against the group’s identities. Gender did not result in significant differences in the prints – but race did, the scientists found.

“This is the first study to look at this issue at this level of detail, and the findings are extremely promising,” said Ann Ross, a North Carolina State professor of anthropology and the senior author of the study.

“But more work needs to be done,” Ross added. “We need to look at a much-larger sample size and evaluate individuals from more diverse ancestral backgrounds.”

The work, in part, answers the call of a scathing 2009 National Academy of Sciences report which called for further scientific research into forensic evidence collection and analysis, Fournier said. Fingerprints were one of the disciplines which were singled out in that report.

“Our study was in response to that call to action,” said Fournier.

Previous work by anthropologists had not been relevant to forensics because pattern type is not a trait used in fingerprint comparisons to identify latent prints at crime scenes, she added.

But now a more-complete picture of fingerprints could be coming into focus, Fournier said.

“This information is valuable evidence to corroborate the conclusion of a match based on a point-by-point comparison by a latent fingerprint examiner,” she said.

Other recent fingerprint advances have used mass spectrometry to hone in on trace amounts of material on the fingerprint, including narcotics, or hormones which could indicate gender. But they have not focused on the print pattern itself.

SOURCE: This article was first published by Forensic Magazine on 29 September 2015

DNA Detective Prof Valerie Corfield explaining DNA technology

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

Our very own and the original ‘DNA Detective’ Prof Valerie Corfield explains how applications of DNA technology are used to solve crimes in the following video created by the Public Understanding of Biotechnology (PUB) as part of a series on basic biotechnology.

DNA Awareness Trainer wanted for KZN

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

We are urgently looking for an additional DNA & Crime Scene Awareness Trainer to host our DNA CSI workshops in the KZN region.

DNA Project Team 2015

If you are passionate about forensics and fighting crime, are confident and presentable with great public speaking skills then please email us ASAP at with your CV.

Please Note:

  • Preference will be given to someone with knowledge of genetics and/or forensics.
  • This is a part time position where you will be paid per workshop.

The closing date for all applications is Sunday the 12th of July 2015.

Specialist police sniffer dogs lead to 215 arrests

Monday, June 29th, 2015

As long as crime has been fought, dogs have been used in the battle to keep lawlessness at bay. But mention a police dog and thoughts inevitably turn to that of a dog with its teeth bared, chasing down a criminal or keeping angry protesters at bay during riot control.

However, there is an elite group of 30 dogs in South Africa that never bare their teeth, and are usually friendly Border Collies or Labradors.

These are the dogs known as the biological, body fluid detection canines. They are specialised in detecting blood and semen. It is this ability that helps detectives solve crimes or gather vital evidence, especially in murder and rape cases.

National police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo said in the year ended March 2015, these specialist canines were involved in almost 2 300 searches with 706 samples of blood or semen found and 215 suspects arrested.

There is one such dog at the Umzinto Dog Unit on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast. Paris loves nothing more than to chase down a tennis ball and bring it back to her handler, Warrant Officer Jason Reddy. However, the moment he puts her harness on, it is time to work seeking out blood or semen that is not readily visible.

K9 unit

What kind of dog is recruited to help the detectives?

“It has to be a dog with a friendly disposition. It also needs to be a dog that can get into small areas,” says Reddy, a 20-year veteran of the police. At least 18 of those years have been with the police dogs, or the K9 unit, as it is more commonly known.

Border Collies, Labradors and on occasion German Shepherd dogs are used. Paris is a black and white Border Collie with a little more than five years of service and, according to Reddy, has been the crucial link in a number of cases that have resulted in convictions.

In one case in which two girls were raped in Hibberdene on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast, Paris found a drop of blood that was not seen by the naked eye. The sample was taken and tested. The DNA from that small drop matched the DNA of a suspect already on the police’s database.

“That suspect had a previous conviction and we had his DNA on our database. He got 25 years,” said Reddy.

Paris has been trained to differentiate between human and animal samples. She can smell a pinprick-size sample of blood that is not visible to the human eye and can smell blood even if it has been washed away.

In a case where three people were killed in a hit-and-run accident, it was Paris’s sharp smelling ability that picked up the trace of blood inside a hole that would normally contain a screw holding the mud flap of the car that clinched the case. The driver, whom police suspected, had washed the car. The blood found by Paris was tested and found to belong to one of the three dead girls. Her sharp nose saw to it that the driver was convicted of culpable homicide.


The dogs like Paris are picked once they are at least 14 months old and then undergo training at the police’s K9 Dog Training Academy in Roodeplaat in Pretoria.

Captain Cliffie Pillay, who is responsible for the police’s canines in KwaZulu-Natal, said the handlers of biological, body fluid detection canines must have had at least two years of experience as a dog handler.

Reddy was previously the handler of a dog trained to seek out explosives. And before he was teamed up with Paris, he too had to undergo training.

Reddy and Paris get called out once a day by detectives for murder cases or by the Family, Violence, Child Protection and Sexual Offences Unit for rape cases.

In fact it was such a dog that was called out to help police last week in the hunt for two men who are alleged to have raped an American tourist in the Tsitsikamma National Park.

In one case where a couple was arrested for stabbing Umzinto grandmother Sushila Pillay, Paris located the alleged murder weapon – a knife – in the Umzinto River a week after the murder.

In Durban’s western suburb of Malvern, police had caught the suspect who had told them where he had thrown the knife used to stab a man. Officers could not find it in the open patch of land, but Paris found it still with the victim’s blood on it. While not necessary for the conviction, it solidified the case the police had against the man.

99% success rate

A quiet “Soek” from Reddy sends Paris looking for blood or semen, depending on what is required. When she finds it, she sits down at the spot. And that is when the forensics experts move in to confirm her good work and extract samples required for DNA testing.

In another case a woman who was raped repeatedly in a forest in Dududu near Umzinto was so distraught that she could not recall where in the forest the crime had occurred.

Reddy and Paris were called in and five different crime scenes in the forest were located by Paris.

Paris is expected to work for another five years at least, but even she is tested annually by Pillay to ensure that she is up to scratch.

According to Pillay, Paris will find that sample of blood or semen more than 99% of the time.

There are currently only two biological, body fluid detection canines working in KwaZulu-Natal, but according to Pillay there are plans to bring more of dogs like Paris to KwaZulu-Natal, so criminals beware.

This article was first published by on 21 June 2015

Crime scene discovery – separating the DNA of identical twins

Monday, May 11th, 2015

Forensic scientist Dr Graham Williams uncovers one of the DNA’s longstanding mysteries

SINCE its first use in the 1980s – a breakthrough dramatised in recent [UK] ITV series Code of a Killer – DNA profiling has been a vital tool for forensic investigators.  Now researchers at the University of Huddersfield have solved one of its few limitations by successfully testing a technique for distinguishing between the DNA – or genetic fingerprint – of identical twins.

The probability of a DNA match between two unrelated individuals is about one in a billion.  For two full siblings, the probability drops to one-in-10, 000.  But identical twins present exactly the same DNA profile as each other and this has created legal conundrums when it was not possible to tell which of the pair was guilty or innocent of a crime.  This has led to prosecutions being dropped, rather than run the risk of convicting the wrong twin.

Now Dr Graham Williams and his Forensic Genetics Research Group at the University of Huddersfield have developed a solution to the problem and published their findings in the journal Analytical Biochemistry.

Previous methods have been proposed for distinguishing the DNA of twins.  One is termed “mutation analysis”, where the whole genome of both twins is sequenced to identify mutations that might have occurred to one of them.

“If such a mutation is identified at a particular location in the twin, then that same particular mutation can be specifically searched for in the crime scene sample.  However, this is very expensive and time-consuming and is unlikely to be paid for by cash-strapped police forces,” according to Dr Williams, who has shown that a cheaper, quicker technique is available.

Dr Graham Williams

It is based on the concept of DNA methylation, which is effectively the molecular mechanism that turns various genes on and off.

As twins get older, the degree of difference between them grows as they are subjected to increasingly different environments.  For example, one might take up smoking, or one might have a job outdoors and the other a desk job.  This will cause changes in the methylation status of the DNA.

In order to carry our speedy, inexpensive analysis of this, Dr Williams and his team propose a technique named “high resolution melt curve analysis” (HRMA).

“What HRMA does is to subject the DNA to increasingly high temperatures until the hydrogen bonds break, known as the melting temperature.  The more hydrogen bonds that are present in the DNA, the higher the temperature required to melt them,” explains Dr Williams.

“Consequently, if one DNA sequence is more methylated than the other, then the melting temperatures of the two samples will differ – a difference that can be measured, and which will establish the difference between two identical twins.”

Pictured (left to right) are Dr Williams's students Dieudonné van der Meer, Leander Stewart, Neil Evans and Kimberley Bexon.

HRMA has some limitations, acknowledges Dr Williams.  For example young twins, or twins raised in highly similar environments may not have yet developed sufficient methylation differences.

Also the technique requires a high sample quantity that might not be present at the crime scene.

“Nevertheless, we have demonstrated substantial progress towards a relatively cheap and quick test for differentiating between identical twins in forensic case work,” says Dr Williams, who gives a detailed summary of the science behind the breakthrough at blog-site The Conversation.

SOURCE: This article was first published online by the University of Huddersfield on 20 April 2015.

Dust Samples Traced Using Fungal DNA

Monday, April 20th, 2015

Researchers from North Carolina State University and the University of Colorado, Boulder, have developed a statistical model that allows them to tell where a dust sample came from within the continental United States based on the DNA of fungi found in the sample.

Using the fungi observed in a dust sample collected in Raleigh, NC (blue point), the model predicts that the sample is most likely to have originated near Columbia, SC (red point). The error in this prediction, 138.7 miles, is close to the algorithm's median prediction error. Beyond a single "pin-in-a-map" prediction, the shaded regions capture areas of the U.S. for which the sample is likely to have originated with 90%, 75%, and 50% probability.

The primary goal of the research was to develop a new forensic biology tool for law enforcement or archeologists. “But it may also give us a greater understanding of the invisible ecosystems of microbial life that we know are all around us, but that we don’t fully comprehend,” says Neal Grantham, a Ph.D. student in statistics at NC State and lead author of a paper on the work.

The researchers developed the model using data from the Wild Life of Our Homes citizen science project conducted by the Your Wild Life lab based at NC State. The project collected dust samples from approximately 1,000 homes across the continental U.S., including samples from 47 of the 48 contiguous states.

The goal of that project was to test the dust samples for DNA to identify the microbial species present in and around our homes. One of the things the project found was that the types of fungus — or fungal taxa — varied widely from region to region.

“Based on that finding, we wanted to determine if you could predict where a dust sample came from based on the fungi present in the sample, and — most of the time — we can,” Grantham says.

The researchers developed a model that analyzed the fungal taxa present in a dust sample and predicted where the sample came from. About five percent of the time, the model’s predictions were within 35 miles of the correct sampling site. Those were the most accurate predictions. The worst five percent were off by at least 645 miles. The model’s median prediction error was 143 miles. However, the research team is already working to make the model more accurate by developing more advanced algorithms.

“The work we’ve done so far was to determine whether this concept was viable,” Grantham says. “Now that we know it is viable, we’re developing statistical methods that are better suited to the problem.

“Ultimately, we want to have an online tool for law enforcement to run the results of dust samples taken from a piece of clothing, a body, or a vehicle, and get information on where the clothing, body, or vehicle has been,” Grantham says.

SOURCE: Forensic Magazine – 16 April 2015

Forensic Science and Criminal Justice online course

Monday, April 13th, 2015

Learn how police use science in criminal investigations and its role in the criminal justice system with this free online course being offered through by the University of Leicester.

Starting date: 13th of April 2015
Duration of course: 6-weeks
To register: Please visit

About the course

Over the past two decades, the criminal justice system has been dramatically affected by technological advances in scientific contributions to the law. The most influential developments have been in the area of DNA profiling, and its forensic applications for both identifying perpetrators and exonerating the innocent.

Although there have been some extraordinary victories for the forensic science community in recent years, there has also been scepticism about the infallibility of some forensic science practices, and the interpretation of physical evidence in the courtroom.

This free online course will begin by introducing you to the historical context of forensic science and how science is used by the police during criminal investigations.

You will then explore some of the implications that these forensic techniques have on the criminal justice system, such as controversies surrounding biometric databases, the portrayal of forensic science in popular media (“the CSI effect”), and how forensic science is used in the courtroom.

Finally, you will consider what the future of forensic science looks like and where the discipline may be heading in the years to come.


No prior qualifications in forensic science or other disciplines are required. Students should have an interest in how science assists police investigations, and how forensic science impacts on the criminal justice system.

Angels’ Care Rape Crisis Centre

Monday, March 30th, 2015

The DNA Project is very pleased and fortunate to be a beneficiary of Blow the Whistle and thanks to their amazing and generous contribution of funds raised through the sale of their whistles, Vanessa has chosen to donate a portion of this year’s proceeds to help support the establishment and equipping of a new rape crisis centre in Howick, KZN.

The Angels’ Care Rape Crisis Centre, which is currently under construction, is being spearheaded by one of our Directors, Carolyn Hancock, and aims to assist child victims of sexual abuse from informal settlements around the uMngeni municipal area.

The Crisis Centre will provide access to all the necessary social, medical and legal services to ensure that a child not only receives care and timely assistance in a single location, but through medical and psycho-social healing, it will restore dignity to these children and provide a mechanism whereby a case can be followed through to the point where the perpetrator is more likely to be identified and ultimately convicted.

Carolyn explains that although there are many reasons that child rape incidents go unreported, one of the primary reasons is the fact that many survivors, particularly children, lack access to services and support. In the cases where children do have access, a proper statement is often not obtained from the victim, and crucial evidence is not collected timeously. As a result of this, possible convictions of child rapists often fall through leading to the crime going unpunished; which is where the Crisis Centre will step in to help.

She is hopeful that in the same way as the government has set up Thutuzela Centres in certain hospitals nationwide that provide a holistic service to victims of sexual abuse, the rape crisis centre at Angels’ Care Centre could be the first of many centres operated by South African non-profit organisations that have good working relationships with all the relevant governmental stakeholders. Such centres could not only monitor levels of abuse in more rural communities, but also ensure that vital forensic evidence is actually collected and used to ensure the identification and conviction of offenders, and bring about emotional healing to survivors.

In addition to providing much needed equipment, The DNA Project will also run a track and trace programme which will monitor the progress of each case received from date of collection of the DNA evidence to its presentation in court; the purpose of which will be to ensure that evidence collected results in convictions, and if not, to identify problem areas as to why cases do not make it to court.

Hand-in-hand with this project is a research project which will look into more effective DNA evidence collection methods in relation to children, which historically have a very low yield rate.

The building, which will likely be completed this week (1 April), will consist of a reception area, a consulting room for the SAPS/NPA, a consulting room for the social worker/counsellor, a medical examination room, bathroom facilities and even a bedroom where the children may rest if needed.

The Angels’ Care Centre itself is only situated a few metres away from a government clinic and directly opposite the Howick SAPS Station and works closely with the SAPS, Department of Health, Department of Social Development and the Department of Justice/NPA.

The Crisis Centre is aiming to officially open its doors on 1 July of this year.

To learn more about the Angels’ Care Centre, please visit their website or follow them on Facebook

We wish to extend a very big thank you to everyone who has supported the Blow the Whistle campaign this year and for helping to aid us in supporting this inspiring initiative.

6 cases that changed crime analysis

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

The following infographic by Portland State University takes a look at how crime analysis has changed for the better since 1784:

(click on image to enlarge)


CREDIT: Portland State University Online Bachelor’s Degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice