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DNA Fingerprinting for Soils May Soon Help Catch Criminals

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The James Hutton Institute of Scotland recently distributed a press release detailing the importance of soil DNA fingerprinting and its crucial role in everyday forensic analysis. Here Professor Lorna Dawson speaks to us about the international project which promises to catapult this type of forensic analysis into mainstream laboratories and the European courts.

TN: How did the international MiSAFE project collaboration come about and could you tell us more about this?
Professor Dawson: As we are world leaders at the James Hutton Institute in the field of research and application of forensic soil science, industry experts, and microbial ecologists asked if we would become a partner in the consortium. I was invited to the Guarda Civil in Spain to speak at a seminar on the topic and we started to write the new successful research project.

TN: How important is soil as a forensic tool and which characteristics are profiled?
PD: Soil is a very important trace evidence and a highly valued search component. The characteristics that are used depends on each specific case context. I would examine where, what and when before considering the choice if best approach. Currently we would analyse the mineralogical profile to characterise the geological (inorganic soil component) and the organic chemical profile to characterise the plant residues persisting in the organic soil component.  We also profile the fungi, bacteria, plant species (using morphology and DNA)  and faecal components to ascertain animal origin.

TN: Which analytical techniques are predominantly used in the investigation of soil samples?
PD: XRD, FTIR, SEM, microscopy, GC, GC-MS, ICP, and DNA.

TN: What is the ultimate goal of the MiSAFE project?
PD: To test the reproducibility of the microbial profile analysis as an analytical tool to characterise soil on a questioned item to help track source and to present as evidence in court. To produce produce tested protocols and operating procedures to enable the method to be tied in labs across Euroe, after rigorous testing on a range of soils  and case contexts.

TN: What does the future hold for soil fingerprinting how will this complement other forensic areas of analysis?
PD: This project will hopefully enable soil microbial DNA profiling to be used in a range of European courts. I think it could widen the range of types of cases where soil can be used, from currently mainly serious crime  to volume crime such as burglary etc, and will enable it  to be taken up in main stream laboratories, where similar methods are used for human DNA. The combination of mineralogy, organic chemistry and microbial biological  characteristics  available from on a trace amount if soil will substantially enhance us evidential value in courts of law.

Louise Conlin, Editor, Technology Networks