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Changing the Future of Forensics through Next-Generation Sequencing

Krystal Breslin
| Nov 03, 2015

Ten gallon hats and barbequed meats is what often comes to mind when someone mentions the state of Texas and the city of Dallas. Unbeknownst to most of the residents of this great city though, just a few weeks ago some the greatest minds in forensic science met to discuss, collaborate, and explore the advancements in the field. While the 26th annual International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI) was the first forensic conference I have attended, it is definitely one that will not soon be forgotten.

My name is Krystal Breslin and I am a Master’s student in the Biology department at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. My principal investigator is Dr. Susan Walsh, and our lab focuses on forensic DNA phenotyping. Naturally, from the beginning of my work in this lab, I have been highly intrigued at the capabilities that Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) promises not only for our research, but for the forensic science field as a whole. Upon arrival at ISHI, it was very apparent that not only has Next-Generation Sequencing begun to be accepted by the forensic field, it is the direction a substantial portion of the research and technology is moving both now and in the future.

Next Generation Sequencing: A Game Changer

We have all heard the old saying “saving the best for last”, and this year that is exactly what ISHI did. The final day of the conference centered on Next-Generation Sequencing and what it has to offer for the forensic community. Not only were the talks encouraging to see just how well this technology has caught on, they also illustrated the power this technology has to “change the game” in forensic science.

NGS has opened numerous doors to both application and future research in the forensic field that many of the presenters spoke on. Magdelena M. Bus presented us with an innovative technique that could change the way highly degraded and contaminated samples are analyzed in the forensic laboratory. She suggested that NGS can be used to work on both degraded samples as well as mixtures to achieve a whole new level of genetic information we have not seen before. Her examples of successful data collection from ancient teeth and skeletal remains brought the application of NGS in forensic casework to life.

This innovative idea of changing the way the forensic community looks at mixtures and degraded samples was resonated by Bode Cellmark and NexGen Forensics in their presentation later that day. They suggested the decrease in cost and increase in the output of the analysis makes NGS a must for the forensic community. Not only does this technology increase the chance of a successful analysis of a casework sample, it also presents the opportunity for more data to be obtained from the sample. This increase in data presents a significant advantage over capillary electrophoresis that will be hard to ignore especially when one looks at the statistical power of the data.

If Not Now, Then When?

While NGS is not currently used in most forensic laboratories, this conference definitely solidified the idea that one day this type of analysis will be typical in a forensic laboratory. What will that mean for forensic science as a whole? What more can we discover with NGS?  From identifying more markers for pigmentation and identification, to complete mixture identification, to kinship analysis, the possibilities of where the research can go are endless.

This is an incredible time to be a member of the forensic science community. Some great changes, many brought to us by NGS, are happening in labs all over the country. Embracing this change is essential to the growth and development of the forensic community and it is becoming apparent that the community is doing just that. As Claude Bernard once said, “In science the important thing is to modify and change one’s ideas as science advances”.