Hair strands could reveal lifestyle secrets of criminals (video)
SAN FRANCISCO, April 4, 2017 — Hair fiber analysis, a forensic crime tool with a questionable past, could soon have a brighter future thanks to the development of a more refined scientific technique that could reveal much about a person's lifestyle. Scientists say the new technique could potentially provide investigators with vital clues about a person's age, sex, body mass, diet and exercise habits that could help them hone in on potential suspects.
The researchers will present their work today at the 253rd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS, the world's largest scientific society, is holding the meeting here through Thursday. It features more than 14,000 presentations on a wide range of science topics.
A brand-new video on the research is available at http://bit.ly/acssfhairforensics.
"Who you are, where you've been, what you eat, what drugs you take — it all shows up in your hair," says Glen P. Jackson, Ph.D. "Depending on the question being asked, the chemical analysis of human hair can provide amazing insights into the life and lifestyle of a person."
Forensic hair analysis was once a mainstay of criminal investigations and courtrooms. The technique relied on microscopic examination of hair color, thickness and curvature to identify suspects and link them to crime scenes. However, critics have long argued that hair analysis is subjective and that experts have overstated its reliability. In fact, a recent review conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice found that 90 percent of hair examiners' testimonies in criminal trials contained erroneous statements. As a result, several people who were convicted based on hair-sample analysis were later found to be not guilty. Jackson says forensic investigators still collect hair samples but rarely use them anymore.
Instead, DNA testing is the current gold standard in criminal cases. But Jackson, who is at West Virginia University, says hairs found at crime scenes often don't have enough viable DNA in them for analysis. And even if DNA is available, a matching sample might not be found in existing criminal databases. In addition, DNA only provides a genetic profile of a suspect and reveals nothing about the person's lifestyle, which could be key to breaking a case. For example, as Jackson explains, "You could have genetically identical twins, and if one is obese and one is lean, we potentially could tell the difference between their hairs with our method," Jackson says.
Jackson and his team decided to delve deeper into the chemical composition of hair to see if they could develop a scientifically rigorous technique to identify certain lifestyle characteristics of criminal suspects and their victims.
Using liquid chromatography in conjunction with isotope ratio mass spectrometry (LC-IRMS), the researchers measured the ratio of isotopes (atoms of the same element that have differing numbers of neutrons) within the 21 amino acids found in keratin, the primary constituent of hair. This method is not too difficult for a technician to perform and is, therefore, becoming more common in crime labs.
With the approach, the team identified 15 isotope ratio measurements that potentially could yield crucial information about certain lifestyle habits of individuals. To test this possibility, a researcher in Jackson's group collected hair samples from 20 women in Jordan, the lab member's native country. Prior to LC-IRMS measurement, the women completed extensive questionnaires about their lives, including their health, hair care and diet. In a blind evaluation based on these hair samples, Jackson's team was able to predict a subject's body mass index with about 80 percent accuracy, using a cross-validation approach. Recently, the researchers conducted a similar study among 20 American men and women and found that they could accurately identify the sex of a donor with 90 percent accuracy.
While promising, Jackson says far more work needs to be done before this technique can be used in crime labs. The team needs to bolster its pool of hair samples and refine its methodology. For now, the analysis requires several strands of hair from the same person, which could make it difficult to use in forensic settings where only a single strand may be available. But if these issues can be worked out, then LC-IRMS analysis of amino acids in hair could eventually be a complementary forensic tool to DNA analyses, filling in gaps that genetic materials alone can't plug, he explains.
A press conference on this topic will be held Tuesday, April 4, at 9 a.m. Pacific time in the Moscone Center. Reporters may check-in at the press center, South Building, Foyer, or watch live on YouTube http://bit.ly/ACSLive_SanFrancisco. To ask questions online, sign in with a Google account.
Jackson acknowledges funding from the U.S. National Institute of Justice.
The American Chemical Society is a nonprofit organization chartered by the U.S. Congress. With nearly 157,000 members, ACS is the world's largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.
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Forensic attribution using stable isotopes: Hairs to humans and insects to carrion
Although isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) has historically been considered a specialized technique, requiring significant training and expertise, modern instruments provide such automation and ease-of-use that it is becoming easier to conduct and a more common tool for answering a variety of forensic, ecological, geological, anthropological and environmental questions. In the forensic community, IRMS is already in use in many government forensic laboratories and has been used as an investigative lead on several occasions. This presentation provides three different studies involving source attribution using IRMS, all of which make use of multivariate isotope ratios from compound-specific IRMS to offer greater discrimination than bulk isotope analysis.
In the first part of the talk, we compare the ability of bulk and compound-specific isotope analysis to classify and attribute human hair to subject groups such as body mass index, age and sex. The compound-specific isotope ratio analysis was performed on 14 underivatized amino acids that were released from the hair following acid hydrolysis. Statistical techniques such as canonical discriminant analysis (CDA) are used to overlook the covariance of amino acid isotope ratios between individuals caused by dietary factors and instead highlight the selective differences caused by grouping factor(s) such as age and sex. Samples originate form both US and Jordanian subjects.
The second part of the talk uses isotope ratios to link blowfly larvae, pupae and adult flies to different food (carrion) sources. Ecologists often use isotope ratio analysis to determine the trophic level of organisms and their primary food sources. However, such analyses are rarely interested in linking adult insects to a specific meat source in a forensic context. In this study, we present a proof of concept study to test the hypothesis that adult blowflies can be linked to specific food sources via their stable isotope ratios.
The final part applies the same method (amino-acid-specific IRMS) to predict the geographic harvesting area of eastern Oysters. Such capabilities are a potential way to prevent against consumer fraud, public health and illegal harvesting. The three selected applications are just three examples of using compound-specific isotope analysis (CSIA) to unlock the origins of matter for potential societal benefit.
415-978-3605 (San Francisco Press Center, April 2-5)
Katie Cottingham, Ph.D.