Catalyzing Solutions with Synthetic Biology

Computer-generated model of a virus.

The keynote speaker for this year’s International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI), Andrew Hessle, describes himself as a catalyst for big projects and ideas (1). In biology, catalysts are enzymes that alter the microenvironment and lower the energy of activation so that a chemical reaction that would proceed anyway happens at a much faster rate—making a reaction actually useful to the biological system in which it occurs.

In practical terms, Andrew Hessel is the person who helps us over our inertia. Instead of waiting for someone else, he sees a problem, gathers an interested group of people with diverse skills and perspectives, creates a microenvironment for these people to interact, and runs with them straight toward the problem. Boom. Reaction started.

One of the problems he has set his mind toward is that of cancer drug development. Continue reading

Rapid DNA Act of 2017: What is It?

On May 16, 2017, the U.S House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate passed the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 (H.R.510 and S.139, respectively). The bill was sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Representative James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis) and enjoyed bipartisan support, ending up with seven Republican and five Democratic cosponsors in the Senate, and seventeen Republican and seven Democratic cosponsors in the House. The bill was passed by unanimous consent voice votes in both chambers.

So what is the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 all about?

Simply put, the act will expand the use of rapid DNA technology in law enforcement departments by creating a way for them to use the results they get by connecting them to the FBIs Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). Still curious? Read on and you will learn much more about what the Rapid DNA Act of 2017 does and doesn’t do. Continue reading

Returning the Stolen: A Preview of the ISHI 27 Keynote Lecture

Abuelas-de-Plaza-de-Mayo-feature

Grieving Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo who have lost their children and grandchildren. Daniel Garcia / Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

Argentina is probably not the first place that comes to mind when you think of dictatorships, yet the “Dirty War” of the late 1970s killed 10,000–30,000 citizens in an act of political repression by the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (AAA). Among this figure includes some 13,000 people who disappeared overnight, sent to a network of hundreds of concentration camps.

Dirty-War-arrests

Citizen arrests made by the AAA. Click for full article from targina.net (Spanish)

The political landscape of Argentina was hardly stable at the time, supporting the idea that this was a civil war between the AAA and guerrilla militants. However it soon became clear that countless human rights violations were being conducted on anyone who held a contrary political ideology. Left-wing activists, trade unionists, students and journalists were subject to abduction, torture and assassination. Continue reading

A Grateful Keynote Speaker, Not-So-Clever Criminals and Some World War I History: Highlights from the 26th International Symposium on Human Identification

nullThose of us lucky enough to attend the 26th International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI) can agree that the meeting was a resounding success once again this year—plenty of outstanding workshops, presentations and posters, great networking and learning opportunities and, of course, fun with new and existing friends and colleagues.

Now that we’ve all had a chance to recover from all of the excitement, let’s recap some of the meeting highlights.

Continue reading

Forensic Science in Search of the ‘Disappeared’

By Fredy Peccerelli

Guatemala’s method of uncovering human rights violations can help other post-conflict areas, says Fredy Peccerelli.

Skeleton TeethDuring Guatemala’s internal armed conflict (1960–1996) almost 200,000 people are thought to have been killed or ‘disappeared’ at the hands of repressive and violent regimes. Those lives matter. Their families’ demands are clear: they want to know what happened to their loved ones and they want their remains returned. They need truth and justice.

Using forensic sciences, the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) is assisting families by returning their loved ones’ remains, promoting justice, and setting the historical record straight.
Continue reading

From Death Row to Exoneration Thanks to DNA Testing

Hands of man prisoner gripping rusty prison barsImagine being convicted of a crime for which you are not guilty—not some minor crime, but one of the most heinous crimes imaginable: the rape and murder of a young girl. Would you feel shock and anger at the injustice? Disappointment in the legal system that could make such a horrible error? Sadness and depression at the thought of spending time imprisoned for a crime that someone else committed? Probably all of those emotions and more. At your sentencing hearing, the situation gets worse; you are sentenced to death. Now, this horrible crime will prematurely claim the life of two innocents: the young girl and you.

This is the situation that Kirk Bloodsworth faced in 1985: a death sentence for the rape and murder of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton. Although Bloodsworth didn’t know it at the time, DNA testing would eventually prove his innocence and save his life.
Continue reading

How a Magazine Ad Helped Convict a Rapist

TrialIn May of 1986, a woman in Orange County, Florida, was surprised by a man who entered her apartment and raped her at knifepoint. Despite the fact that she got a glimpse of his face, the chances of identifying and convicting her rapist were slim. Although law enforcement officers did their best to identify the perpetrator, their investigative techniques in the case were limited compared to our current set of forensic tools. That changed when Jeffrey Ashton, an assistant attorney for the state of Florida, saw an advertisement for DNA-based paternity testing in a magazine and began to wonder if DNA testing could also be used to identify the man responsible for the attack.

Continue reading

Learning About the $1,000 Genome

Personalized MedicineAt the recent International Symposium on Human Identification, Kevin Davies, the keynote speaker and author of The $1,000 Genome, entertained attendees with a history of human genome sequencing efforts and discussed ways in which the resulting information has infiltrated our everyday lives. Obviously, there is enough material on the subject to fill a book, but I will describe just a few of the high points of his talk here.

Continue reading

Transporting the World’s Largest Fish: A Whale [Shark] of a Task

Whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium. By Zac Wolf (Own work) (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IMG_1023.jpg), via Wikimedia Commons

Whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium. By Zac Wolf (Own work) (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:IMG_1023.jpg), via Wikimedia Commons

As the largest fish in the sea, whale sharks were named due to their immense size: Adults can reach 13 meters (~40 feet) and weigh over 25 tons, rivaling most dinosaurs in size. This gentle giant is gray or brown with a flattened head, white spots, pale vertical and horizontal stripes and a white underside. They are filter feeders, maintaining their bulk on a diet of plankton and small fish, and with jaws up to 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) wide, they can consume 3–5lbs of plankton per hour. Whale sharks are found in warm oceans around the world and in a handful of aquariums. One of these aquariums is the Georgia Aquarium, which acquired two small female whale sharks in 2006 and two small males in 2007 from Taiwan’s annual fishing kill quota with help from Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency before capture of whale sharks was banned in 2008. Note that “small” is a relative term; all four sharks were well over 13 feet in length.

How does one transport whale sharks from Taiwan to an aquarium in Atlanta halfway around the world? Clearly a handful of bubble wrap and a roll of stamps isn’t going to suffice.

Continue reading

DNA Typing: Useful Tool to Solve Crimes or Invasion of Privacy?

DNA in a test tubeThis year marks the tenth anniversary of the complete human genome sequence. The Human Genome Project revealed a surprising fact: Only 1% of our genome encodes proteins. This equates to a paltry 20,000–25,000 genes. The function of the other 99% of our DNA remained a mystery. Shortly after the sequencing was completed, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) launched a new research project, termed the Encyclopedia Of DNA Elements (ENCODE), to identify DNA elements and try to find a purpose for the other 99% of our DNA. This project has contributed greatly to our understanding of the human genome, as documented in the 30 ENCODE-related papers published in Nature, Genome Research and Genome Biology in 2012 (see the Nature web site. However, the ENCODE project is being used in an unforeseen way: to support an appeal to the recent US Supreme Court decision about the constitutionality of collection and analysis of DNA from arrestees.

Continue reading