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Wildlife Forensic DNA Analysis as a Training Ground


I entered the field of molecular genetics in spring 1991 as the Forensic Technician in the Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, under the supervision of Bradley White. Since then, I have completed my master's and Ph.D. part-time while operating the day-to-day logistics of the forensic testing. Through my experience, first as the technician and eventually as the Forensic Supervisor of the facility when it moved to Trent University in 1997, it has become clear to me that this particular type of DNA application provides exposure to an incredibly diverse set of questions. Not only that, it is an excellent training ground for a wide range of potential directions within molecular genetics, well beyond the forensic skills one learns.

A wildlife forensic geneticist is exposed to diverse cases every day. One phone call might involve moose poaching, with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources requiring samples to be matched from suspected poachers to an illegal kill site in order to link the suspects to the crime scene. The next phone call could be a request from Environment Canada to determine the species of origin of jewelry made from bone or hair and whether that sample originates from an endangered species listed under the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). Correspondence might also include discussions with collaborators working on a large-scale global survey of animal penis samples representing "aphrodisiacs" purchased from cities such as Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Toronto to determine the species that are most commonly used in this worldwide trade. Yet another phone call in the same day might be to answer questions from a game warden or fisheries officer as to whether the laboratory can identify where within the province an animal was taken or from which lake a particular fish originated. If the laboratory does not have the means to produce such evidence, we develop a strategy on how to establish the necessary analysis with the officers and government agencies that we work with.

This diversity drives the skills one needs to successfully operate a wildlife forensic DNA laboratory. All of the above examples require the development of specific DNA markers to provide evidence in court. Furthermore, these specific questions must have an appropriate database of "gold standard" specimens to validate the procedure and provide the statistical evidence associated with each DNA marker. Human forensic laboratories, although maintaining their own interesting applications and pressures, focus on one species. Wildlife forensics deals with an unlimited number of species that might be relevant to investigations, and most recently, we have expanded beyond animal species into plant and tree forensic applications.

One of the most important aspects of wildlife forensic DNA analyses, from a training perspective, is the expansion of all the techniques and databases established for wildlife forensic purposes into important biological and management questions for game and endangered species. The DNA profiles we use in species identification, and the databases that we have established, are the same genotypes and samples that can be used to assess biological questions about species such as moose, wolves, and bears and their geographic movements, levels of genetic connectivity or gene flow among different regions, and overall levels of genetic diversity. The DNA markers and analyses used in species identification are identical to those used in taxonomic studies to identify relationships between different species. So, although we establish species-specific DNA markers for identifying CITES-listed sturgeon species in the caviar trade, the results from the database go directly to elucidating the hotly debated taxonomy of sturgeon.

This dovetailing of wildlife forensics with natural resource management and research existed informally for 10 years, since the beginning of my research career at McMaster University, where the same DNA markers and samples would benefit both conservation officers and research biologists. The identification of this overlap formed the foundation for the expansion of the Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory on its existing research program into the Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre ( NRDPFC), a partnership among Trent University, the Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory, and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. This merging of forensics with biological research was funded by the federal Canadian Foundation for Innovation and Ontario Innovation Trust and was further strengthened through the appointment of NRDPFC director White as the Canada research chair in conservation genetics and biodiversity. The expertise we have developed, fueled in part by the forensic backdrop of NRDPFC, has attracted the attention of federal and provincial government agencies and researchers interested in collaborating with the centre.

The increasing demands on the Wildlife Forensic DNA Laboratory within NRDPFC demonstrate perhaps one of the most important responsibilities of a forensic scientist: that the generation of results be as efficient as possible to allow rapid turnover of evidence, without compromising the integrity of the typing or the continuity of the samples. Rapid throughput, coupled with the ever-increasing number of species and therefore databases, has thus identified the future direction of wildlife forensic DNA science: robotic automation (see picture). NRDPFC has a number of robotic and automated workstations for DNA extraction and profiling as well as DNA marker development. Returning to the question that conservation officers might have about identifying the geographic origin of a specific animal as an example, this application requires a significant number of DNA markers and samples from different localities within the database to ensure a confident assignment of an unknown sample to a particular geography. Hence, automating DNA marker development and profiling of a large number of control samples makes generating this evidence feasible in a time frame that otherwise might be limited using manual techniques.

Although the number of forensic technicians might decline as automated systems are implemented in laboratories for the daily throughput of samples, automation will likely never replace forensic scientists, whose skills will be required to supervise casework, validate and assure quality of robotic systems, communicate with enforcement officers, interpret data, and testify to their conclusions. Furthermore, processing backlogged cases and constructing criminal DNA databases will be greatly facilitated by the implementation of robotics and integrated automated workstations.

The existing instrumentation, the diverse sample types we have to process, and both the forensic and biological questions we address offer all centre personnel (more than 20 graduate students working with the different centre faculty and about a half-dozen technical staff) exposure to DNA marker development, database management, robotic automation, quality assurance and validation, DNA analysis, and forensic science. These skills are relevant to all types of DNA profiling. Certainly, the centre has trained a number of personnel now working in the Ontario Forensic Science Centre and the RCMP Forensic DNA Laboratory. But training in high-throughput DNA genotyping can be directly applied to profiling in agriculture and clinical genetics, for example. Our developing expertise in robotic automation and information management has attracted private companies with interests in the integrated infrastructure of NRDPFC.

Being trained as a forensic geneticist does not limit one to forensic science but instead provides the skills necessary to work in the fields of genomics, molecular ecology, conservation genetics, natural resource management, and evolutionary biology, whether in public institutions or private laboratories. In my opinion, training in forensic genetics is a solid career choice in that it provides a credible foundation to move into casework or other fields utilizing DNA profiling.

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