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.
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 “Transporting the World’s Largest Fish: A Whale [Shark] of a Task”
This 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.
John Wayne Gacy was a notorious serial killer who sexually assaulted and murdered 33 boys and young men in the 1970s in Chicago, Illinois. The killing spree stopped only when he was arrested in 1978 after the parents of his last victim contacted police with critical information that implicated Gacy in the boy’s disappearance. He was tried, convicted and in 1994 executed for his crimes. Of the 33 victims that police found buried in and around his home, only 25 could be identified, leaving eight victims nameless and eight families to wonder if their missing loved one died at the hands of this evil man. When all available means of identification were exhausted, these eight sets of remains were buried but not forgotten.
In 2011, these remains were exhumed and the victim’s DNA analyzed to try to provide clues as to their identity. Continue reading “Identifying the Victims of John Wayne Gacy”
Well, I just booked my plane tickets to Washington, DC., to attend the 22nd International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI), which is being held October 3–6. I am excited because every year ISHI is filled with great presentations and posters that represent the newest advances in forensic science. Plus, I have opportunities to interact with some of the greatest minds in the field. These opportunities include more formal interactions, such as asking questions of presenters during the general session and poster sessions and “talking shop” during the breaks, lunches and evening events, but also informal interactions like chatting between mouthfuls of Texas barbecue (16th and 21st ISHI), line dancing (17th ISHI in Nashville, Tennessee), sipping Pinot Noir at a Hollywood hotspot (18th and 19th ISHI) and having pictures taken with a fairly convincing Elvis impersonator (20th ISHI in Las Vegas, Nevada).
What are the hot topics that will have attendees buzzing this year?
Continue reading “Join the Fun! Learn About Cutting-Edge Forensic Science. Attend ISHI.”