PHOTO BY GEORGE FREY
level—with requisite courses in biochemistry, genetics, and statistics coupled with at least six months of on-the-job training—are among the army of scientific personnel needed to tackle the job. Processing the current backlog of forensic DNA evidence and expanding local, state, and national databases of DNA evidence obtained from crime scenes, as well as from convicted offenders, will require a massive effort. THE WORK is quite literally piling up. In
STARTING POINT Myriad Genetics lab technician Drew Carter opens evidence bags containing individual DNA samples collected by New York State
Police from the site of the World Trade Center disaster.
CHEMISTS NEEDED FOR
Huge evidence backlog creates private-sector opportunities for forensic DNA analysts
W I L L I A M G . S C H U L Z , C&EN WASHINGTON
And that’s even without factoring in the enormous number of samples waiting to be DNAtested for the purpose of identifying victims of the World Trade Center disaster. “The DNA technology is incomparable,” says Paul Ferrara, a chemist who is director of the Virginia Division of
Forensic Sciences in Richmond. But in order to fulfill its promise, “approximately
10,000 new forensic scientists will be needed over the next decade,” Ferrara says. Ferrara
And that need crosses all science disciplines.
Chemists and biologists at every degree
VIRGINIA DIVISION OF FORENSIC SCIENCE PHOTO
mployment opportunities in forensic DNAanalysis are on the verge of explosive growth. That’s the conclusion of many forensic scientists and other experts who say that the power of DNA identification technologies, coupled with advanced computer technology, is poised to open a new era in U.S. efforts to fight and prevent crime—provided those efforts are funded.
Assessing DNA evidence backlog and related work, Mark D. Stolorow, Cellmark
Diagnostics general manager of forensics, says, “We’re looking at a tsunami of physical evidence that will overwhelm the public sector.” He compares the future employment opportunities for scientists interested in forensic DNA analysis with the dot-com hiring sprees of the mid-1990s.
public crime-lab refrigerators across the country, huge backlogs of DNA evidence now sit unprocessed because of shortfalls in state and local funding. The samples are grim reminders of the sorts of violent crime—rapes, sexual assaults, and nonfatal stabbings and shootings—that continue to plague U.S. citizens.
No one has a good handle on the exact size of the DNA evidence backlog, says
Lisa Foreman, deputy director of the Investigative & Forensic Sciences Division at the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), part of the Department of Justice. She says
NIJ estimates put it at something like half a million DNAsamples. Other experts say it is closer to three-quarters of a million samples, maybe more.
Whatever the exact number, Foreman says, the backlog at least shows that the
DNA-database concept for fighting crime has caught on with state government officials. She says the states recognize the potential to solve crimes by comparing crimescene DNA evidence with databases that contain DNA profiles of known offenders and/or DNA evidence collected from other crime scenes.
In the same way that fingerprints can identify suspects, DNA profiles can help to identify perpetrators or enhance investigative work, for example, by determining that an unknown offender is committing serial crimes when his or her DNA profile appears at more than one crime scene.
All of the DNA data collected by state and local governments are destined for the
Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), operated by the
Federal Bureau of Investigation and authorized by Congress. Ideally, the database will be used to stop criminals before their crimes escalate in terms of number and levels of violence—a well-documented phenomenon associated with many crimes such as