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High-tech DNA detectives meet in Burlington

The second annual Green Mountain DNA Conference held recently at the Sheraton Burlington Hotel and Conference Center demonstrated the leaps and bounds made by current forensic DNA technology. It seemed like "Star Trek" warping into another sector of the galaxy with an array of DNA-related topics, techniques, and technologies-and the "Star Trek" theme permeated the multi-day gathering.

DNA, short for deoxyribonucleic acid, contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms.

Dr. Eric Buel, director of the Vermont Forensic Laboratory welcomed 58 attendees representing forensic laboratories, related corporations, and universities from the U.S. and Canada.

"It's like Christmas opening all these packages, and I can't wait to open them," said Buel. "We have a variety of presentations, and I believe that we will spend time on the "Star Trek" Enterprise."

Buel introduced Francis (Paco) X. Aumand III, the director of Criminal Justice Services, Vermont Department of Public Safety. Aumand alluded to "Star Trek" when he noted that "...The first U.S. ship was called the Enterprise" sailed on Lake Champlain in the 1700s.

Keynote speaker, Dr. Hendrik Poinar, McMaster University Ancient DNA Centre, began his presentation and said, "I think what I do fits well with the "Star Trek" theme. Poinar covered paleogenomics, the study of evolutionary geology, and speculative time travel.

Poiner, his family, and a crew of 20-30 spend their summers on expeditions in subzero degree temperatures-Alaska and Siberia, researching the preservation and extraction of DNA from forensic, archeological, and paleontological remains.

Poinar is intrigued with how DNA can persist in environments past its theoretical time limit or in other words "time trapped", i.e. a well-preserved mammoth found below zero degrees.

"We have found blood out of bone, as well as 70 thousand-year-old intact heads of mammoths in ice caves at minus 20 degrees," said Poinar.

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