DNA: Always handle with care

Ever caught an episode of CSI? If not shame on you. It follows a crack team of scientists as they lift the lid on strange and unusual deaths. It’s all about understanding the importance of forensic science in solving crimes and DNA always plays headline act.

The power of it leaves criminals quaking in their boots. Why? Because unique sequences in their DNA give forensic scientists the ever important edge. But how much DNA do you need to bring someone down? In 2007, a judge in Northern Ireland questioned a technique called low template DNA which can nab it from just a few human cells.

In recent times the terrorist Sean Hoey was cleared of planting a bomb that snatched 29 lives in Omagh because the judge decided this low plate technique didn’t cut it. The DNA material being amateurishly collected and stored didn’t help matters. Since then, scientific experts have got behind touch DNA but only if a firm line is taken on the way it’s handled. Makes total sense to us. www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/apr/11/law.ukcrime

But the use of DNA to reel criminals in doesn’t end there. One day science will be able to grab a person’s trace from a room, and then find out where they’ve come from.

And then there’s the question of dust. Amazingly scientists can now pull DNA from it. Which means your room would be the perfect hunting ground. In the future it may even be possible to see how much DNA has broken down in the dust, and then point out how long that person has been in the room. Now if that doesn’t deserve a standing ovation, nothing does.

Hear an explanation of DNA fingerprinting, from the man who discovered it:

DNA doesn’t always take the glory when catching criminals. Mobile phones like to muscle in too. Do the Soham Murders ring any bells? When Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were murdered by Ian Huntley, it was a mobile phone mast that tipped off the police. See the moment Jessica switched her mobile off, the mast took note. That meant that the only place in Soham she could have been was just outside, or inside, the killer’s house. Backed into a corner, the evil Huntley admitted all.

And let’s not forget the real hero of the case, forensic electrical engineer David Bristowe. He pieced together the whole story and deserves a mention.

If you’d like to solve crimes in the future you could become:

  • geneticist developing new methods of analysing tiny quantities of DNA
  • forensic scientist collecting DNA samples from crime scenes without contamination
  • salesperson selling brand new DNA analytical services or equipment to the police force
  • police detective interpreting evidence based on telecommunications
  • solicitor advising clients or police on the use of phone evidence in criminal cases
  • A Home Office civil servant drafting legislation on how long mobile phone companies should keep sensitive data