New Kiwi crime tool unravels mixed DNA

IAN STEWARD
Last updated 05:00 05/01/2014

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A Kiwi backyard invention is changing crime scene investigations around the world. For the first time, police can take samples that contain more than one person's DNA and unravel the strands.

Among the crimes it has been used to solve was a multiple-homicide in Australia, where a spot of blood found at the killer's house contained blood from several of the victims.

In Nelson, it was used to solve an arson case where an unexploded incendiary device was found at the scene of a forest fire. The handle of a shopping bag found inside the device yielded a mixture of DNA.

Another case, in the United States, proved a soldier rolled a jeep despite his claim it had been stolen from him. A shoe found at the scene contained a mixture of his DNA and another person's.

In the past all this evidence would have been discarded. Mixed DNA was useless DNA. There was no way to separate out the strands of genetic code. But now, with a tool developed in the "backyard" of some Kiwi scientists, the problem that has long stymied international forensic scientists has been solved.

The software, called STRmix, has already been sold to the US Army, and the FBI is in talks to acquire the rights.

Institute of Environmental Science and Research scientists John Buckleton and Jo-Anne Bright, in collaboration with Duncan Taylor from Forensic Science South Australia, developed STRmix using standard mathematics and "Monte Carlo processes" - sampling thousands of different possibilities and using chance "many, many times".

The program was put into case work in August 2012 and has since generated "enormous international interest", Buckleton said.

In many cases of sexual assault, particularly those involving more than one offender, any DNA recovered was often mixed. "We had no tool that could interpret mixed, low-level strains. Uninterpretable DNA was put aside - the report goes out as inconclusive."

The tool works in seconds for simple cases or up to days for complex cases. It currently can separate four strands.

Buckleton said the US Army acquired the technology and have used it in cases including the overturned jeep.

Four arms of the US government use DNA investigation - the military, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI. NIST and the military have already bought STRmix, Buckleton said.

The software has been in use in New Zealand labs for just over a year and has been used in several prosecutions.

In October, Murchison man Colin Hayball was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years' prison on a string of arson charges.

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He lit 36 fires in forests near Tapawera, causing $130,000 in damage and response costs.

The evidence was circumstantial but STRmix identified Hayball's DNA, mixed with a secondary trace of DNA on a shopping bag handle, inside one of the homemade incendiary devices that did not fully ignite.

The software has also been put to work on "volume crime" such as burglaries and thefts. A project has begun to cross-check mixed samples recovered by police from burglary scenes to identify thieves.

- Sunday Star Times

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