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Caught by the Hair: New Forensic Tool Could Differentiate People

by Douglas Ankney

A new study published by a team from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (“LLNL”) in California concludes their method of proteomics sequencing of short, single strands of hair will revolutionize the forensic criminalistic science of the future.

“Protein-based human identification has the potential to be a powerful tool used by forensic experts in the future,” write the LLNL scientists in the Journal of Forensic Sciences. “Protein-based forensics applied to hair evidence is a viable approach to human identification by demonstrated GVP markers [which] can be detected in forensically relevant samples [the] size of a single inch of hair.”

Using heat, ultrasound, and surfactants, the team fully dissolved single hairs that were 25 millimeters in length. Then, with liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, they determined profiles from building blocks known as genetically-variant peptides (“GVPs”). They found more than 6,500 unique peptides, and a total of 57 separate GVPs, enabling the scientists to both identify and predict the DNA genetic template that created them. Together, these produced random-match probabilities between 2.6 x 10 to the -2 power and 6.0 x 10 to the -9 power.

The concept of identification-by-protein was introduced in 2016, and involved using hair shafts from people buried in England from the mid-18th and 19th centuries. Those results showed signature proteins could produce identification.

But LLNL is going further with genetic identification. In an ongoing three-year project with the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency, scientists are working on samples as tiny as skin cells.


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