Unique Hair Proteins Could be the Next Forensic Breakthrough, Even Bigger Than DNA

hair-proteinsThe applications of forensic science may have been around for nearly two hundred years but the biggest advancements in the field have only come into popularity over the past several decades. And among all the advancements in forensic science, DNA has become a key investigatory tool. The study of DNA has helped to improve life as we know it in so many ways: ancestry, criminal defense, paternity, and it has even helped us to better understand chronic disease.

But now scientists are saying that protein analysis could be an even more effective way to conduct genetic testing than previous forms. It used to be that you would need a large amount of cells to extract a DNA sample, but now it seems that we can rely on smaller and smaller samples. In fact, the most cutting-edge DNA testing suggests that we need only draw very tiny traces or even mixtures of genetic material from different people can identify DNA in fewer cells than ever.

Brad Hart is the director of the national laboratory’s Forensic Science Center. As a study co-author, he says, “We are in a very similar place with protein-based identification to where DNA profiling was during the early days of its development. This method will be a game-changer for forensics,” cautioning that many steps remain before it is validated.

According to the Innocence Project director of science and research, Glinda S. Cooper, protein analysis will be able to complement traditional DNA testing within the next 5 to 10 years. The advocate for prisoners seeking exoneration through DNA testing goes on to say, that this is “a complementary but separate method than we currently have to correctly identify or to exclude the right person involved in a crime.”
Of course, we just need more time to develop the method. Development will require great scrutiny and long-term testing to examine things like variability in populations and how to measure ranges within subgroups and various regions.

In this study, the researchers found that male and female hair samples from 66 European Americans, 5 African Americans, 5 Kenyans, and 6 human remains (from cemeteries in Greater London dated between the 1750s and the 1850s) have identified 185 protein markers.

These protein markers can be, then, the basis for this genetic study. Questions, still remain, of course—like why protein markers in hair can vary even between identical twins who have matching DNA profiles, or if diet or environment can effect changes in these protein markers over time.

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