On December 7, 1941 the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack that decimated the US Pacific Fleet. Of the ships that were attacked few sank as fast or as completely as the Oklahoma, which listed and capsized within minutes after a rapid series of direct torpedo strikes.
Survivors from the Oklahoma described a surreal scene below deck of sloshing water and fuel oil, men trying to climb from the darkness through hatches, beating their way out with tools. Hundreds remained trapped in interior compartments. Of the dead on the Oklahoma, 36 were easily recovered and identified. The remainder were not able to be identified and were interred in communal caskets.
Approximately 74,000 soldiers from World War II still remain unaccounted for. About one-quarter of those are considered recoverable by the military’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, the Hawaii organization that has relied on scientific and geopolitical changes to identify more than 600 long-lost MIAs since 2003.
The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command’s military and civilian teams have tracked down aircraft wrecks and burial sites in remote locations, exhumed remains, and analyzed bone fragments and bits of material at the world’s largest forensic anthropology lab. They work with casualty offices from each branch to find survivors and collect DNA samples for matching. For each name, the military tries to locate at least two relatives who share a long-lasting form of DNA passed along maternal lines.
In Hawaii, Greg Berg, the forensic anthropologist who manages the joint command’s Central Identification Laboratory, cautions that the work to identify remains could take years, the process he warns is complicated by commingling of remains which is far more extensive than expected. Only five people have been definitively identified since 2003.
Still, “the commingling problems are not insurmountable, and [we are] confident in our abilities to eventually bring about case resolution,’’ Berg said by e-mail.
For more see: Boston Globe
By now you have heard the news: On October 3rd, 2011, Amanda Knox and former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, won their appeal in an Italian court and were acquitted and freed for the murder of British student, Meredith Kercher. Despite a previous trial and guilty verdict based on supposed DNA evidence, both convicted parties won an appeal and a deeper trial over the evidence occurred.
While we could pick over all of the details of the case, we’ll leave that for another organization to discuss. Instead, allow us to focus alone on genetic evidence.
With no obvious motive, no independent witnesses and no confessions, the Italian prosecutors had to rely on genetic evidence found at the crime scene to convict Knox and Sollecito. This makes sense as genetic evidence is supposed to be iron clad. Or is it?
The original conviction relied on traces of Sollecito’s DNA being found on the victim’s (Kercher) brassiere clasp, together with traces of DNA from both defendants being found on the knife allegedly used to slash Kercher’s throat. However, similar to our famous U.S. tales of botched crime scene evidence (ie. the Jon Benet Ramsey or OJ Simpson cases), the prosecutions evidence has been marred with rumors of bad police work and possible fabricated evidence. Furthermore, not only did the defendants know Meredith Kercher, but Amanda Knox lived with her.This complicates matters on an enormous level.
The first issue is called “contamination”. Unlike crimes where the victim and perpetrator don’t know each other, and therefore a genetic link is most likely an obvious connection, it is hard to do the same with roommates and their visiting friends – there will always be matching DNA present. And although DNA evidence puts a person ‘at the scene of the crime’; it does not necessarily prove they committed the crime.
Secondly, although DNA evidence can match the scene of a crime, it does not allow for “time-based evidence”. There is no telling if a match occurs because a victim or perpetrator was present at the time of the incident or exists because they were present at some other point in history.
Finally, although many people have been successfully prosecuted on DNA evidence, it is not failsafe or full proof. Typically, a DNA sample found on a murder weapon will be said to match the DNA of the suspect to the extent that only one person in one million would have the same profile. However, if a particular genetic profile is held by one person in, say, one million this means that in a country with a population of 60m will have 60 people that give a perfect mach for the DNA evidence and even more would match a partial profile of that evidence.
In the U.S., a man called Kerry Robinson was convicted a few years ago of gang rape. In an independent investigation last year DNA evidence from the crime scene plus Robinson’s DNA profile was shown to 17 ‘blind’ analysts with no contextual information: the 17 experts were hugely divided – 12 said the suspect could be excluded.
Although no one can or should doubt the genetic evidence is a powerful tool for solving crime, it is not perfect and it has it’s weakness, from false positives to human error. One thing is for certain – this legal matter and it’s evidence will be scrutinized for a long time to come. Let’s hope that we can learn from it.
In a move that seems deceptively futuristic, but is in fact a sign of the times, the Nazareth, Pennsylvania based Martin Guitar Company is making waves in their industry by including botanical genetic coding in the body of their instruments.
Generations of the Martin family have been proudly making guitars since 1833. The current management, headed by Chairman and CEO Christian Frederick Martin IV, recently decided that, in an attempt to continue to fight for their otherwise stellar reputation, they will implant each new instrument with a DNA tag designed to thwart counterfeiters and send a message that they will not watch their company’s reputation diluted by cheap knockoffs, coming predominately out of China.
Gregory Paul, the company’s vice president of operations said, ”"The Martin family has always been vocal about fighting overseas counterfeiters. They have had a particularly hard time persuading the Chinese Government to prosecute imitators who have been selling inferior products under the C.F. Martin name.” “The Internet makes it too easy for a counterfeiter or their distributor to offer even a handful of units to a very broad audience. Ads for these sites crop up every day.”
The genetic tagging was developed by Applied DNA Sciences a company from Stony Brook, N.Y., which pioneered the technology allowing manufacturers to mark their products with a unique trace of plant DNA. According to a spokesman for the company ”The DNA tag itself can be put into anything in the production process it can be put into ink, for labels on wine bottles. It can be put into glue or varnish or just about anything.”
Applied DNA is also working with the Department of Defense to put tags on microchip components that go into weapons systems in order to combat counterfeit chips that have been making their way into the military supply chain.
What we wonder is how, exactly, the instruments will be tested for authenticity and how much it will cost to do so. Furthermore, if DNA/genetic coding can be found in the guitar and used for genetic testing to confirm authenticity, then won’t counterfeiters be able to obtain and replicate the DNA from the instrument(s) and apply it to their own?
Big questions for a big future in genetics…
The idea of creating genetic passports for, plants, animals, microorganisms was a very hot topic between 2007 and looked like it was on it’s way to becoming a common, standard practice. However, at this time, for the most part, these burgeoning ideas seem to have been put on hold.
The idea to create genetic passports was suggested by the Technical Expert Group of the Convention on Biological Diversity in Lima, Peru and was backed by a group of experts from over 25 countries. The proposal, which stated that 150 countries, who signed a 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) treaty, would have sovereignty over the genetic resources originating within their borders and could control the use of their genetic resources outside of their borders. They would do so by providing specific information such as the material’s origin, its characteristics and the institutions responsible for providing and/or using it.
While the proposal was widely praised and supported, it does not appear that it was ever adapted by the Convention on Biological Diversity. In fact, in a paper entitled “Genetic Diversity and Conservation and Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources” the author(s) state that:
Accurate passport and characterization data are the first requirements, but users of plant genetic resources, particularly plant breeders, have also emphasized the need for improved evaluation of accessions. Evaluation is a complex process and there is serious backlog in most collections.
However, you can be assured that genetic passports for non-human organisms is on it’s way even if it is not currently implemented. Were there is a will, there is a way.