Pollen DNA may clue-in forensic details

Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Pollen from different plants, as seen through an electron microscope (colourized).

For one Western researcher, DNA found in pollen grains can provide a fingerprint to determine their precise origin.

Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Bogumil Karass collaborated with research teams from Emory University in Atlanta and University of Western Australia to use synthetic biology techniques – the design and construction of new biological entities – in order to develop a method to efficiently capture DNA from pollen grains. The method is expected to improve drastically the study of pollen and other spores by allowing scientists to rapidly extract minute amounts of pollen DNA and propagate it in yeast or bacterial hosts. This will allow for higher quality of analyses for more detailed information gathering.

Because different plant species are endemic (i.e., native or restricted to a certain area), scientists use pollen to identify their place of origin. In this way pollen can be used as a forensic tool to link suspects to events or crime scenes, or to determine the movement of narcotics, for example.

Karas said the new method would greatly improve forensic analyses that depend on accurate classification of pollen grains.

Crystal Mackay // Special to Western NewsSchulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Bogumil Karass collaborated with research teams from Emory University in Atlanta and University of Western Australia to use synthetic biology techniques – the design and construction of new biological entities – in order to develop a method to efficiently capture DNA from pollen grains.

“Current methods allow researchers to narrow down the origin of the pollen to a country,” he said. “The hope is that with the method we are developing, it should be possible to narrow the region of pollen origin down to a province or state.”

“Most of our experimental designs are inspired by processes that are naturally occurring in nature. We are just trying to make them more efficient. We hope to revolutionize forensic palynology.”

The project was recently approved for $503,193 USD in funding by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – the research arm of the United States Department of Defense.