However, these attributes are generally only used in high profile forensic investigations because of their complexity and the required specialised facilities and expertise necessary for their analysis and interpretation. This might change soon thanks to an international effort by soil scientists, whose aim is to enable law enforcement forces to use soil as a forensic tool to catch criminals in a stronger, quicker and more affordable way.
The MiSAFE project, coordinated by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel), with partners Libragen (France), CLCbio (Denmark), Ecole Centrale de Lyon (France), Israeli Police (Israel), Guardia Civil Española (Spain) and the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, with funding from the European Union, aims to provide forensic practitioners with a microbial genetic profiling tool that could bring soil into routine forensic investigation and judicial proceedings. This would also provide opportunities for European high-tech enterprises to lead this new field of environmental genetic forensics.
In the context of forensic investigations, soils are an underused, powerful resource that can provide compelling data that a given person or object was present or absent from a particular location. Even a small sample of soil contains extensive information: its mineralogy, as well as the organic and biological elements present in it can be analysed to provide signatures as to its origin.
Professor Lorna Dawson, leader of Soil Forensics at the James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen, explains why soils can be the perfect contact trace material.
“Soil covers the majority of the terrestrial surface, and people customarily have some contact with it. It is unconsolidated, which means it is readily transferable, and besides its mineral and organic elements, it is also an enormous reservoir of genetic information contained in the myriad species of micro-organisms inhabiting it, which has as yet been relatively unexplored in forensic case work. This project will lead to a better understanding of the impact of storage, sample handling and soil variability on such genetic attributes; essential before use in a criminal court of law. It will also test the analysis of even smaller sample sizes using molecular tools.
“This information can now be made available to the investigator relatively easily. The development and implementation of novel and evolving technologies, such as this genetic information, would enable the more routine use of soil in investigations, whether that be in a civil or criminal legal context, and thus bridge a security gap, benefiting civil European and global security.”
This two year project, involving scientists, top legal and forensic experts, police practitioners and industrial stakeholders, will deliver a useable genetic forensic tool, with associated operating practice guidelines, while also widening its application to environmental and ecological disciplines.