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Forensic DNA conference attracts scientists, investigators

BURLINGTON A forensic DNA conference held Aug. 4-6, marked a first for Chittenden County and the state it was the first conference of its kind held in Vermont. Those who faithfully view the popular T.V. show CSI would have felt like a member of the team. CSI, an educational program for the general public, depicts what occurs at crime scenes as well as in laboratories. DNA is short for deoxyribonucleic acid , a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms Each of the 50 attendees received a binder with correspondence signed by Gov. Jim Douglas emphasizing that the gathering was a relaxed, interactive meeting where attendees meet new people and establish important contacts. Opening remarks made by Commissioner Thomas Tremblay, Vermont Department of Public Safety, expressed the need of DNA, especially with the recent state cases. The conference housed in the Burlington Sheraton Burlington Hotel and Conference Center and hosted by Dr. Eric Buel, Director of the Vermont Forensic Laboratory, and his staff was well orchestrated with a wealth of information presented. Lead presenters with real world connections and anecdotes included Dr. Bruce McCord from Florida International University, Dr. George Carmody from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, and Joanne B. Sgueglia from the Massachusetts State Police Crime Laboratory, as well as others from across the U.S. and Canada. Diverse topics included an overview of genotyping systems, validation studies, mixture interpretation and statistical analyses, forensic lab efficiency then and now, body fluid stain identification, challenges and issues faced. McCords presentation validated the use of algebra in forensics, A matrix is a solution to a problem. To solve a problem with four unknowns, you need four equations. The precision of DNA testing is quite sensitive, said McCord. Each DNA lab sets parameters and has set protocol and guidelines. Interpretation must be conservative, and data from these studies yields guidelines not rules. When analyzing DNA, extraneous factors are present, i.e., temperature impeding results and the use of different instruments with unexpected results. It is imperative that an allele the alternate form of a gene usually one from the mother and one from the father, cannot be scored, considered real, unless there is sufficient quantities of DNA. Low copy DNA or an insufficient amount of DNA entails the use of other strategies that must be used to determine the better of two out of three. McCord said, Its safety in numbers, and certain materials may cause issues and unreliability. We have to be careful and follow rigorous guidelines. Challenges ensue and bring up questions as, How do you control others from touching your samples? What about samples stuck in transit via the mail? What about mixtures? Its tricky working with mixtures, overlapping of alleles from multiple contributors, said Carmody. Match to the forensic evidence NOT to the suspect DNA profile addressing: Who is in the suspect population? Who can be excluded from the population? Carmody said, Its hard to discriminate something that cannot be seen and distinguish if it had ever been there before. Sgueglias presentation focusing on validation studies and preparing mixture interpretation guidelines reinforced the concept, KYS know your system when it comes to differentiating artifacts versus real DNA. She said, I lock in the data for the crime scene samples before looking at the knowns for a comparative analysis. We operate in an unbiased fashion. When assessing a profile, one must determine: Is it a mixture? How many individuals? Is there a major or a minor(s)? Sgueglia said, We in the field encounter the CSI effect with more savvy jurors. Higher expectations are placed upon us to become more efficient in our processing efforts. Theres been an increase of sample loads with an ever increasing backlog, said McCord. DNA experts feel the pressure in processing the amount of samples, and many labs run out of funds, not to mention time. Ron Fourney of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police accentuated, pushing the envelope. More DNA analysis with less time and without loss of quality is expected with automation processes. Fascinating cases of past and present had been discussed, one of which included the century old debate about the mystery and whereabouts of Friedrich Schillers skull. Schiller, one of Germanys most important classical playwrights, had been the center of this debate until early May 2008 when it had been determined the skulls on hand had not been his skull. One of the skulls had been that of a woman that Schiller loathed. All work and no play seems to be the mantra for many in any field. This relaxed conference showed the participants otherwise, especially Tuesdays sunset cruise on the Ethan Allen III Lake Champlain Shoreline when the sun made a rare performance during the course of this rainy summer. Presenters acknowledged other lab team members, experts in the field, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), and disclaimers were made that much had been discussed per lab or points of views did not necessarily represent the official position of the U.S. Department of Justice. Vermonts first DNA conference was sponsored in part by NIJ, Orchid Cellmark and Promega, two companies focused on forensic business applications and new technologies. Both companies have made progress in assisting and collaborating with the already taxed DNA labs across the U.S. and Canada.

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