New frontiers in forensic science

Posted by er134 at Jan 11, 2017 04:50 PM |
University of Leicester continuing to lead the way in forensic discoveries

The UK has a long-standing reputation for being at the forefront of forensic science innovations, including developing DNA fingerprinting and profiling. In December, the University announced its plans to consider the feasibility of developing a new city centre attraction, which will focus on the evolution of forensic science and the important role this has played in solving crimes. It will hopefully feature, alongside other forensic procedures, the work of Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, who pioneered DNA fingerprinting techniques at the University of Leicester.

UK breakthroughs

The UK’s discoveries in forensics are well documented, with the biggest breakthrough in the field made at the University of Leicester in 1984 – the invention of DNA fingerprinting by Sir Alec Jeffreys.

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Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, inventor of DNA fingerprinting
The technique identified the unique DNA variations in each human through hair, saliva, blood and other samples.

By the following year DNA fingerprinting was used to solve the first immigration case, the first paternity case and the first confirmation of identical twins. The world’s first conviction using DNA fingerprinting evidence took place in 1986.

Sir Alec’s discovery has become integral to modern criminal investigations, crime-scene analysis, paternity testing, twin studies, immigration disputes, and conservation and diversity among non-human species.

The plaudits for Leicester don’t stop there. More recently, Professor Rob Hillman and Dr John Bond OBE from the Department of Criminology developed a technique that reveals previously undiscovered fingerprints on metal, especially gun shell casings, by applying a large voltage to the metal and then adding ceramic beads coated with a fine powder to the surface. This reacts with the corrosion on the metal left over from fingerprints, even after they have been wiped off, revealing the original fingerprint pattern.

This discovery was voted one of the top 50 inventions of 2008 by Time magazine and one of the inventions most likely to change the world by BBC Focus magazine.

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The skeletal remains of King Richard III

And just last year the world looked on as King Richard III was buried in Leicester after his body was discovered under a car park and his identity verified by a teams led by Dr Turi King at the University using forensic science and ancient DNA methods. Named Discover magazine’s 64th top science story of the year and her published work on the analysis is in the 99th percentile for Altmetric score, Dr King is now continuing this work by looking at his entire genome - making Richard III the first named historical figure to have his whole genome sequenced.  She is also working to expand the forensic and ancient DNA work being carried out at the University of Leicester.

Dr King also used a refinement of Sir Alec’s DNA fingerprinting technique to look at the link between British hereditary surnames and genetics, leading to the possibility of being able to predict a perpetrators surname from a crime scene sample.

GCSA’s 2015 report

It’s quite a legacy and one that Leicester is embracing by continuing to push the boundaries with new forensic techniques and technologies. However, to ensure the UK maintains and builds on its current standing, let’s return to The Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA), Sir Mark Walport's report, Forensic science and beyond: authenticity, provenance and assurance, which draws on evidence provided by experts in several fields.

The report states: “Government needs evidence on what forensic approaches can and cannot achieve realistically. Evidence about forensics is vital to make robust policies in areas ranging from the justice system to the financial services sector.

It continues: “Today’s scientific advances mean that we can measure and detect tiny traces of substances with great accuracy and precision. The underlying analytical science has vastly improved our ability to solve and prevent crime through their application in forensic science. Used properly it can help reduce crime and assure the quality and origin of goods and services.”

One of the key themes that runs through the report is the need to break down barriers and improve communication. It says: “Relevant innovation can come from almost anywhere and be applied in seemingly wholly unrelated fields. Therefore the research, innovation, policy, law enforcement and commercial communities need to find better ways of ensuring the cohesion and connectedness that will enable the UK to get the biggest possible benefit from these trends.”

Creating the right conditions

Dr Lisa Smith, Department of Criminology at the University of Leicester, welcomes the GCSA’s comments and says work is already underway at the University to create the right environment for innovation.

Smith leads the INTREPID Forensics programme at the University – the Interdisciplinary Training and Research Programme for Innovative Doctorates in Forensic Science. This €2.9 million EU-funded programme is providing 10 PhD studentships working on research related to forensic innovation and addressing emerging trends and challenges.

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Dr Lisa Smith, Department of Criminology

Dr Smith says: “Forensic science is inherently multidisciplinary as it’s the application of many different scientific disciplines which only become ‘forensic’ when applied to the courts – although that definition is broadening.

“The INTREPID Forensics programme is unique in that it brings together nine different departments, promoting collaboration and better communication. It is multidisciplinary in a real sense spanning a range of research areas: criminology; chemistry; genetics; psychology; mathematics; physics; immunity, infection and inflammation; law; and archaeology.

“This cross-discipline approach is one of Leicester’s strengths and, through the INTREPID Forensics programme, we hope to embed this mindset in the next generation of forensic scientists.”

It’s an approach that has been adopted in Leicester for some time; in 2012, the Alec Jeffreys Forensic Science Institute (AJFSI) was established to bring together academics across the diverse disciplines to tackle current and emerging challenges in forensic science.

Dr Turi King, who led the genetic analysis leading to the identification of the remains of Richard III, explained: “Forensic science is inherently multidisciplinary.  Each case and research question draws on many strands of information and, conversely, forensic techniques are capable of being used in a number of disciplines. We are very keen to expand on this use of forensic techniques as well as develop new ones which will further the impact of U.K. forensic science in the world today.”

Professor Mark Jobling, Department of Genetics, who works in the field of genomics explains: “By bringing together a uniquely interdisciplinary group and applying novel and emerging techniques in the biological and physical sciences, Leicester hopes to lead a transformation in methods and supporting technologies for forensic and historical investigations and their application to contemporary real world problems.”


As Turi King explains, "the discipline is being transformed by a quantum leap in technology – Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS). This will have a massive impact on global forensics allowing analysis of DNA sequences recovered from limited or damaged samples.

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Dr Turi King, Departments of Genetics and Archaeology

"It’s one of many areas in forensic science where Leicester is leading the way. Another focus is imaging. Researchers continue to make critical advances in the imaging of latent fingerprints and objective methods of analysis. This is not only important in criminal case work but also in civil life, e.g. in making banking facilities available to developing world populations where a permanent address and identity documents are lacking."

Professor Sarah Hainsworth, Head of Engineering at Leicester, uses imaging methods to contribute to forensic cases through the analysis of knife or tool marks on tissue and even bone, using novel micro-computed tomography (CT) techniques. Extensive work is also being carried out at Leicester on using imaging methods to determine cause of death and Professor Hainsworth is routinely called to testify in criminal cases.

A large-scale project with a multidisciplinary team of researchers is being led by Dr Lisa Smith and aims to address the lack of prosecutions in cases of sexual violence in conflict zones. Dr Smith says: “Sexual violence is used strategically as a weapon of war but, under these conditions, it’s very difficult to identify perpetrators and hold people to account.”

Dr Smith is working with colleagues in the Genetics Department to develop a new DNA recovery kit with the aim to make this available to NGOs and international aid agencies on the ground so that victims themselves can use swabs to collect vital DNA evidence.Forensic fingerprint.jpg

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Dr John Bond, Department of Criminology

“We believe that DNA can be powerful evidence to support prosecutions of sexual violence in complex environments such as conflict zones, displaced communities, and remote locations where medical facilities are not available. DNA can also be used to provide valuable intelligence about prolific perpetrators, as well as evidence about the strategic link between rape and armed conflict.”

Leicester’s innovative work is making a significant impact on the forensics field. Professor Rob Hillman, Department of Chemistry, says: “Two of our fingerprint technologies are now in the Home Office Fingerprint Visualisation Manual – required reading for all UK police forces and used widely internationally – and one is undergoing commercial development. Access to funding and resources will have a major effect on the rate of progress.”

The future of forensic science

The GCSA’s report provides an overview of some of the key challenges facing the forensic science sector, and highlights the importance of continuing to break down disciplinary boundaries and exploring opportunities for collaboration and interdisciplinarity.

The University of Leicester continues to work closely with national and international police agencies, forensic science providers, and industry to ensure that our research, innovation and graduates are achieving impact globally in forensic science.

Many of the challenges facing the forensic science sector will only be overcome through multidisciplinary partnerships, and the GCSA’s report has identified a range of opportunities for the UK to lead the rest of the world in forensic science research and innovation.

Examples of research being carried at the University of Leicester:

  • Using Next-Generation Sequencing (NGS) to identify DNA degraded by exposure to extreme environmental conditions such as heat, humidity or an explosive blast
  • Using forensic techniques to identify and determine family groups in skeletal remains
  • Detecting fingerprints on metal surfaces subjected to extreme conditions, such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs)
  • Using electricity (electrowetting) to detach aged or damaged fingerprints that are stuck to a surface, so that they can be visualised using reagents
  • Developing a software programme to enable accurate automatic fingerprint identification with the aim of making this evidence admissible in court
  • Modelling the visual search strategies employed by fingerprint examiners during analysis and comparison using Signal Detection Therapy (SDT)
  • Investigating the role of contextual information contributing to motivation and bias in fingerprint examinations and verifications, with a view to establishing more robust decision-making processes.
  • An examination of how legislation impacts how Novel Psychoactive Substances (NPS – sometimes known as legal highs) find their route to market
  • Identifying and quantifying drugs of abuse and NPS (legal highs) in breath
  • The use of 3D comparative technologies to assess skeletal remains
  • Developing methods to detect and quantify drugs of abuse in dried blood spots.