The Evidence is Mounting: We Suspect NGS Will Play a Key Role in Forensic Science

by Aubree Hoover on April 4, 2014 in Genomics
Crime scene tape

With the onslaught of crime dramas, such as Dexter and the CSI series it’s easy to become an armchair forensic scientists. I’ve often sat in my armchair and wondered: if these crime dramas were in fact real, what tools and technology do these forensics and crime labs use?  Does Dexter use a LIMS to record the analysis of blood spatter data? Does he have access to the latest and greatest sequencing technologies? And most importantly, are the tools his lab is using making it capable for him to solve crimes beyond a shadow of a doubt?

To answer these questions and find out more, I recently attended the American Academy of Forensic Sciences 66th Annual Scientific Meeting.  To be honest, I know a bit about what tools are being used in forensics—or more accurately, criminalistics—labs, but I went with a penchant to understand even more and with an eye to understand how next generation sequencing and related technologies can help modernize this fascinating field.  And specifically, how can we evolve our solutions to meet the needs of criminalistics and its use of next generation sequencing?

As you probably know, using DNA to solve crimes has been around since 1983. Since its first use in what is known as the “Pitchfork case,” the use of DNA has expanded to not only implicate or exonerate suspects, but to solve cases involving paternity, missing persons, and mass fatalities.  These days, its use is becoming even more sophisticated. Gel-based techniques have been replaced by capillary electrophoresis. Mitochondrial DNA techniques can harvest even the smallest amount of DNA (from somebody quickly touching an object or another person) and support molecular autopsies or microbial forensics. At the conference, I even learned how the Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs) present in DNA can match phenotypes and come up with an approximation of a police sketch.

Unfortunately, crimes will always be committed, there will always be missing persons, and there will always be horrible accidents or attacks in which there will be mass fatalities. The demand is there – so what more can we be doing to help identify the culprits or the victims? How can technology and information management systems play a role?

Currently, technology poses some challenges that are preventing forensic scientists from fully modernizing their field. For example, right now, most if not all cases require a unique kit and test for every marker.  This is laborious and low throughput.  In addition, a high volume of sample is required to get a foolproof read, and crime scenes often don’t cooperate because they are dirty, involve multiple subjects, and often the amount of sample is miniscule. Capillary electrophoresis has done much for this field, but it has limitations for forensic scientists who want to more quickly and accurately help solve crimes.

So, what about next generation sequencing? While it has the potential to be more high-throughput, faster, cost less, and be more accurate, it comes with its own set of challenges. For instance, many NGS tools are not designed to produce the alignments required by forensic guidelines. Also, cost is still a barrier. While NGS can be less expensive by running multiple samples in parallel, the cost of interrogating all the positive and negative controls that are required adds up quickly.

There also seems to be a shortage of people who could help make sense of the NGS data generated from forensic samples.  The industry would have to snap to by developing analysis programs and cultivating bioinformaticians capable of interpreting results. And finally, any new technologies or methods employed in a court of law would require thorough education for courts, lawyers, judges, and juries.

So, while the jury is still out on what exact role next generation sequencing will hold in the area of criminalistics, I think the potential is great.  Next generation sequencing and corresponding management tools, such as LIMS, could pave the way for the next generation of criminalistics.  As for us, we will solve this mystery using the same MO we always use: by building strong relationships with our customers, contacts, and partners—Illumina® and Life Technologies™—so that we can understand this emerging area in greater detail.