Splitting Hairs to Solve Cases
Have you ever wondered what your hair says about you? Straight, curly, dyed, puffy, dry or oily? New research suggests your hair can reveal a lot more about you than the style you present to the world. A single hair left at a crime scene may actually be able to identify you. Biochemist Glendon Parker and his team from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have discovered that human hair contains unique protein markers which can be examined up to 250 years later and still provide valid evidence.
Lawrence’s team evaluated six historic hair samples along with 76 current samples and discovered unique protein markers which revealed enough information to identify the person they came from. So far they have discovered 186 protein markers which can reliably identify the person the hair belongs to within a limited pool of a million options. Their research is ongoing; Lawrence and his team hope to narrow down and standardize the process to about 100 protein markers which can then be used to identify anyone in the world.
What does this Mean for the Future of Forensics?
Right now, DNA is the gold standard in investigations. It took around thirty years for us to develop the technology and obtain regularly accurate results. According to chemist Brad Hart (Lawrence’s co-author and director of the Lab’s Forensic Science Center) the research they are doing may one day be just as effective as DNA, but their research is still in it’s infancy. “We are in a very similar place with protein-based identification to where DNA profiling was during the early days of its development. This method will be a game-changer for forensics, and while we’ve made a lot of progress toward proving it, there are steps to go before this new technique will be able to reach its full potential.” Hart said to website EureakAlert.
In fact, hair samples may one day provide more reliable evidence than DNA, because DNA degrades over time. According to their recently released study, “A major limitation of [DNA] techniques however, is the susceptibility of DNA to biological, environmental, and chemical processes that reduce template length and modify base structure. These processes result in a loss of template DNA in samples, sometimes beyond the capacity of PCR and sequencing strategies to compensate. In the event that DNA typing yields a partial or null result, few quantifiable genetic alternatives are available to the investigator.” In other words, when DNA fails, investigators have little to go on. Until now, that is. Once Lawrence and his team have finished their research, hair samples are going to become that much-needed forensic alternative. An alternative that can solve cases, even hundreds of years after the fact. This is great news for cold case investigators who could finally obtain enough evidence to solve the decades-old cases that haunt them.
Currently there are more than 211,000 unsolved homicides that have occurred in the United States since 1980. The families of the victims are left with nothing; no answers, and often no hope of ever knowing who killed their loved one. Yet, thanks to the research of Lawrence and his team, some of these cases may one day end up closed, all because of a single hair left behind by the killer.
Get Your CSI On!
Hair identification is just one method future forensic scientists will be using to solve cases. 3D Printing and even the bacteria on our bodies can be used in forensics. If you’re thinking about getting your degree online so you can become a forensic scientist be sure you check out our list of schools and scholarships.