Archive for the ‘DNA Detective’ Category


Specialist police sniffer dogs lead to 215 arrests

Mon, Jun 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

Mon, 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

Mon, Apr 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

Mon, Apr 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

Mon, Mar 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

Sat, Mar 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

Appointment to the DNA Oversight and Ethics Board confirmed

Mon, Feb 9th, 2015

Last week I received a letter such as none I have ever received before.

It was signed by the Minister of Police and confirmed my appointment as a Member and Deputy Chairperson of the National Forensic Oversight and Ethics Board. This part time appointment will run for the next five years.

The reason I am so excited about this appointment is because key to the successful implementation of the DNA Act, is the establishment of this Oversight Board which will provide ethical oversight over the National DNA database and handle complaints relating to the taking, retention and use of DNA samples and forensic DNA profiles. Comprising of ten members, half of which have been chosen from outside of the Government sector, this Oversight Board’s core functions will include monitoring the implementation of the provisions of the DNA Act and making proposals to the Minister for any improvements regarding the overall operations of the database.

Looking at countries around the world which have introduced DNA legislation in the past, they have all done so under the guidance of some form of Oversight Board in response to meeting the commitments imposed upon it by any new DNA legislation. An oversight body furthermore creates accountability and functions as a watchdog not only to ensure ethical compliance with the provisions of the Act but compliance with the time frames within which forensic DNA profiles should be analysed and loaded onto the DNA Database. The purpose of a DNA Database is to load as many arrestee and convicted offender profiles onto the Database, and this important expansion process needs to be closely monitored.

I for one feel honoured to have been tasked with this important role and have notified the Minister that I gladly and willingly accept the appointment and look forward to the important work ahead in helping ensure that the DNA Act is properly and optimally implemented. I do and have always believed that the DNA Act will have a profound effect on crime resolution in South Africa and am delighted to be have been chosen so that I can continue to be part of this process.

The Act states that the first meeting of the Oversight Board has to be held within 30 days of the Act having been declared operational, which is 30 days from the 31st January 2015: namely on or before 2nd March 2015. I am ready as ever and look forward to meeting my new colleagues and hope they are as eager as I am to finally help translate the pages of this Act into real crime resolution.

In the meantime, the work of The DNA Project remains as important as ever —  we need to continue to create awareness around crime scene preservation. When a crime scene is not disturbed, forensic evidence has the power to determine exactly what happened and who committed the crime. Disturb the crime scene, and we lose that opportunity forever and no legislation nor Oversight Board, however good, can change that.

Vanessa Lynch

Operation: DNA CSI 2.0

Thu, Feb 5th, 2015

February is quite the month of change with the DNA Act becoming operational from the 31st of January 2015.

Another nice change that we would like to share with you is our newly redesigned ‘DNA CSI’ website which focuses on our DNA Awareness Campaign.

Please visit to view our new design or to learn more about our workshops and how you can book one for your organisation, group or company.

Our new 'Operation: DNA CSI' 2.0 website

A warm letter of thanks

Fri, Jan 30th, 2015

Towards the end of last year we received a wonderful email from a young lady thanking us for the work we do that we would like to share with everyone.

Good day.

My name is Pearl Mabuela and I’m a 15 year old girl. I really am a big fan of this organization, since the age of 7 I’ve always wanted to be a forensic scientist or work in the criminology faculty. Very soon, I’ll be going to university (I’m in grade 10) and I thought of MONASH university because they offer Criminology, Philosophy, Anthropology and Enviromental science,  All the things I want to do. Unfortunately, as I looked upon the requirements for University of Free state I was quite sad because I don’t have some of the required subjects for Forensic science, but I won’t give up I’ll give all in!

All I wanted to say was THANK YOU because all this while I’ve been telling my parents that forensics, anthropology and philosophy are not regarded as important In our country. I felt like forensics was dying out day by day, but because of you guys I realised that it’s still alive and rising up above all! Watching shows like Forensic detectives, medical detectives, Forensic scientists, Dr. G medical examiner, I was murdered, CSI and so many more really made me have an ambition towards forensics. The other day they broke into our house and the forensic detectives came, as they were collecting fingerprints I was busy telling my mom everything they’ll do and how they will do it, she was quite shocked that I was correct (laughs) but, I just told her “That’s my future job” .

So thank you! You gave me hope again! May God bless all of you abundantly.

Pearl Mabuela

(A young teen in action!)

We were absolutely thrilled to receive such a lovely email and wish to give Pearl a BIG thank you for sharing with us her great story and wish to become a forensic scientist.

The forensic community will definitely benefit from having such a passionate young lady joining their ranks and we wish her the very best with her future studies and look forward to her one day becoming a CSI=)

DNA Project Team

Mitochondrial DNA Research Could Bolster Forensic Investigations

Fri, Jan 23rd, 2015

Image credit: University of California Museum of Paleontology's Understanding Evolution

A grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) will help scientists from Penn State’s Eberly College of Science (United States) delve deep into the world of mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, used to help solve crime in forensic investigations.

Sometimes, forensic scientists only have mtDNA to work with in their evidence samples, with examples being old bones and hair shafts. However, because this genetic information is passed down from a person’s mother, an individual will have the same mtDNA as his or her mother and siblings, making it hard to distinguish between members of the same family. As a result, it can be challenging in some cases to use mtDNA for identification in forensic investigations.

Penn State scientists will use the $430,000 NIJ grant to explore the rates of low-level mixtures of mtDNA found in most individuals, called heteroplasmic variants. These variants are areas of genetic information in mtDNA that can differ between a mother and child, or between siblings, making this type of DNA analysis much more informative for forensic identifications. In addition, the scientists at Penn State will evaluate how variants are passed between relatives, and between different tissue types in a person’s body. Their initial findings on this topic were published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Image credit: University of California Museum of Paleontology's Understanding Evolution

This research project showcases an interface between biology and forensic science research, said Mitchell Holland, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and the lead investigator on the grant. “It’s basic research that helps us understand the rates of these low-level mtDNA variants, and how they move between maternal relatives and different tissues in a person’s body. While these are basic questions of interest to biologists, they also have direct applications to forensic science,” he said.

The investigators will apply next-generation sequencing technologies to explore the mtDNA variants. Next-generation sequencing allows a scientist to obtain much more genetic information than traditional sequencing methods and is allowing forensic scientists to explore areas of mtDNA genetics that weren’t particularly feasible before, said Holland, and the technology is growing fast. “Sequencing technology is growing at a faster rate than computer technology, which is incredible.”

The aim of the research is to make mtDNA analysis a much more useful tool in forensic investigation by providing more information from an mtDNA testing result. The potential impacts of this research are broad and far reaching for the forensic community, and could increase the value of mtDNA evidence in forensic casework.

SOURCE: This article, by Penn State, was published online by Forensic Magazine on 22 January 2015 –