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The Next Generation is Here: Perspectives on the International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI)

Ashley Silvia
| Oct 17, 2014

My name is Ashley Silvia, and I am currently a second year graduate student at Penn State in the Forensic Science Department with a concentration in biology. My PI is Dr. Jenifer Smith and we are working on a Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) validation project using the MiSeq platform. In the future, I would like to continue work on other projects involving NGS, but with a medical research focus.

Running on two hours of sleep, we set out for the airport to find a new flight after ours had been canceled. After all the sleepless traveling, ISHI25 turned out to be an incredible experience. ISHI was my first forensic science conference after joining the Penn State team in 2013. I am currently in my second year of the master’s program working on a validation study for a forensically relevant NGS multiplex with Dr. Smith.

Until the conference, it never occurred to me that I learned NGS before traditional methods of capillary electrophoresis (CE). I am, by definition, the next generation.

The Power of NGS

I attended the NGS workshop and right away I could feel that the community was starting to become intrigued at what NGS could offer. I was interested to see how the community felt about NGS, now that some people have had the chance to give it a test drive. I spoke to a variety of individuals who were on board, whether they were familiar with the technology or wanted to start trying it out in their own labs.

Among those who spoke and/or participated in the panel, there were some interesting talks about what the community is doing with NGS. Jack Ballantyne, Bruce Budowle, Kathrine Gettings, Seth Faith, Sheila Dennis, and Walther Parson all contributed to the workshop where they shared NGS data, talked about the power of NGS, and the importance of having good databases to use for statistical analysis.

NGS can offer the same STR information as traditional methods, while including more STR loci and ancestry/phenotype informative SNPs. Using the same amount of DNA input (1 ng), you could get 16 STR loci (CE) or 60+ STR loci and 150+ SNPs (NGS). The level of detail and sensitivity is increased with NGS compared to traditional methods. With the variations in sequences, a homozygote by length is now a heterozygote by sequence, even though the allele call is the same for both technologies. The amount of detail from sequencing has the potential to be even more powerful than current methods and provide leads when there may not be a profile for comparison.

The Road Not Taken ... Yet

As with many techniques and new technology, it will take time to improve. Validation will progress and lead to an understanding of the technology, similar to how PCR and CE were accepted. In time, NGS will be the next technology used in crime labs. It will not be happening overnight, but with the increasing amount of people interested and curious about the capability of NGS, there will continue to be a push in the forward direction. To make this transition into NGS, the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods (SWGDAM) has started a committee for NGS this past summer.

Some people at the conference started their careers using RFLP, then PCR, and eventually CE. Naturally, they have seen the progress of technology and will continue to support the effort for change. Others who have mostly worked with CE for the majority of their careers are a bit wary of this change. If you have not tried NGS, I urge you to do so. Keep an open mind; NGS could be coming to a lab near you.

The “revolution” is here.