25th World Congress of the International Society for Forensic Genetics, Melbourne, 2013

One of our trainers, David Swanepoel, was lucky enough to attend The International Society for Forensic Genetics (ISFG) Congress in Melbourne, Australia over the week of 2 to 7 September 2013 where he joined 556 other delegates from 49 different countries. We asked David to write up a report of his visit to Melbourne and share with us what he learned whilst there.

The first two days were set aside for dual-track workshops, where in depth training and discussion on various forensic-related subject matters took place. Of the various topics being presented on, I opted to attend the sessions on Disaster Victim Identification for biologists and Wildlife Forensics. The other workshops that were presented included Basic Principles and Advanced Topics in Forensic DNA Evidence Interpretation, Genomics; Implementation of messenger RNA body fluid testing in forensic case work; Forensic DNA Phenotyping; Ancestry analysis as an investigative tool using autosomal binary markers; and DNA Lineage marker Interpretation.

The use of DNA profiling for human identification can extend beyond that for the sole purpose of criminal investigation and is often useful in identifying missing individuals or those who have been victims of mass or natural disasters as well. Disaster victim identification (DVI) is the application of forensic genetics in conjunction with other forms of personal identification (such as fingerprints, dental records, visual identification and personal effects) that may prove useful in identifying such individuals. The concept of ‘relentless preparedness’ was stressed at the workshop – it is vital that there are thoroughly developed procedures in place at both local and national levels to ensure that, if any disaster were to occur, the subsequent processes can be integrated as seamlessly as possible. This requires planning at all stages of the DVI processes, including those at the scene, the mortuary, the laboratory and the administrative processes linking these together.

Examples of previous disasters such as the 2004 Tsunami and the Bali bombings were discussed. Experiences from such disasters have led to a general consensus that DNA should not be used only after unsuccessful attempts at identifying individuals through other means has first taken place. Instead, DNA should be used as the primary driver of the investigations, allowing other details available to complement the DNA results. Although more expensive to conduct, DNA profiling can ensure that unnecessary re-identifications are avoided in the long run if misidentifications had occurred through e.g. incorrect visual identification or the wrong identification documents being found on a deceased individual. More information on disaster victim identification is available on the INTERPOL DVI web page.

The illegal trafficking and trade in protected and endangered wildlife is estimated to be an operation worth approximately USD 53 billion a year. This applies to numerous species of animals, plants and protists. Identifying many of these species accurately is challenging, especially for those where juvenile individuals are involved, or where parts of an individual are trafficked (and not the whole organism), such as seeds of protected plants or the limbs of animals. These items may be mislabelled in order to deceive officials at ports of entry and can then not be accurately identified.

Wildlife forensics is another interesting application of DNA profiling or barcoding, in that it allows for the accurate identification of either an individual or the assignment of a species in cases where too little sample or too little visual information is available to identify it otherwise. This is still a developing discipline of forensic science, but is progressing rapidly. Attempts are being made to standardise processes across laboratories worldwide in order to ensure that best practices are written up and can be applied. Additional information can also be found at the Society for Wildlife Forensic Science’s website.

The plenary sessions of the Congress were structured around multiple themes, and included sessions on next-generation sequencing and rapid DNA analysis; genetic identification of body fluids; Y-STR analysis for ancestry and male or paternally-linked associations; wildlife forensics; complex mixture analyses and statistical considerations and SNP analysis in forensic phenotyping (including the prediction of eye colour, hair colour, skin colour and overall physical appearance).

Various researchers, academics and forensic scientists presented the results of their studies and experiences and enabled discussions to take place on those topics which are currently at the forefront of forensic science research.

This Congress was a wonderful experience and it was an honour to have met and listened to international experts in various disciplines of forensic genetics. I left with a wealth of additional information and new contacts that I hope will be beneficial in helping move South African forensic genetics expertise and skill forwards in future.

David Swanepoel

About David: David received a B.Sc. Molecular and Cellular Biology in the fields of Genetics and Biochemistry from WITS followed by a B.Sc. (Hons.) in Biochemistry and Cell Biology. David’s forensic interests also extend to the legal sphere as he is associated with the use of forensics in assisting to solve cases.

Additional information on the Congress, the presentation topics and abstracts can be found at www.isfg2013.org

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