It’s hard to imagine a better way to celebrate the 33rd International Symposium of Human Identification than a night spent wandering through the Hall of Human Evolution at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The meeting, which took place in Washington D.C. from October 31–November 4, focused largely on using investigative genetic genealogy (IGG). When used to identify human remains or solve cold cases, IGG (a.k.a. forensic genetic genealogy or forensic investigative genetic genealogy, take your pick) relies heavily on techniques developed to sequence DNA from ancient human remains.
New to ISHI this year were live-streamed presentations, building off the success of last year’s session recordings for online streaming. Another first was attendees dressing up in costume for the welcome reception, which happened to coincide with Halloween. From a nucleic acid-themed group costume to Sims characters to a bunch of grapes, ISHI 33 attendees had a chance to show off their fun side while reconnecting with colleagues.
While a range of topics were covered during the workshops, sessions and poster presentations, three themes stood out to this first-time ISHI attendee. In addition to IGG, there was widespread interest in developments in DNA databases as well as efforts to mobilize DNA analysis labs.
In the fall of 1989, a small group of forensic scientists, law enforcement officials and representatives from Promega Corporation gathered in Madison, Wisconsin, for the very first International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI). At the time, DNA typing was in its infancy and had not yet been validated as a forensic method. The available technology consisted of two methods: detection of restriction fragment length polymorphisms (RFLPs) and variable number of tandem repeats (VNTRs). Promega had developed products based on both analytical methods, which essentially provide a DNA “fingerprint” or profile for each individual tested.
Among the attendees at that first symposium was Tom Callaghan, then a graduate student. That experience made a significant impact on his career path. Last week, at ISHI 30, he presented a session on rapid DNA testing. Dr. Callaghan currently serves as a Senior Biometric Scientist for the FBI. In 1999, he was instrumental in launching the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and in 2003, he became the first CODIS Unit Chief.
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.
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 “Rapid DNA Act of 2017: What is It?”
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.
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 “Returning the Stolen: A Preview of the ISHI 27 Keynote Lecture”
Those 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.
Guatemala’s method of uncovering human rights violations can help other post-conflict areas, says Fredy Peccerelli.
During 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.
Imagine 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.
In 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.
At 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.
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