Ninety of Ohio's unnamed dead, found over decades, remain in storage in state crime labs. Their stories, other than their endings, are mysteries. The DNA in the remains is so degraded, it cannot be tested against databases which may give the deceased their identities back.
But a new public-private partnership has brought “next-generation” DNA sequencing to one of the state’s laboratories, and one of the main goals will be to work on those unidentified bodies – with an eye toward tracking down the 1,200 people missing at any given time in the state, authorities announced last month.
The sensitivity, and power, of the new technology, could provide the breakthroughs to close the book on the unsolved cases, they said.
“We want to be able to find and ID those people,” said Mike DeWine, the Ohio attorney general. “Our goal is to find these families answers.”
The new deal is between the state and the Battelle Memorial Institute. Battelle, a non-profit science and research company based in the Buckeye State, developed its NGS technology for five years for the U.S. Department of Defense, and helms a National Institute of Justice-funded look into NGS at eight U.S. laboratories.
The new agreement places the tools into the Ohio AG’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation laboratory in London, Ohio – to help solve the missing persons cases, and accelerate casework that would otherwise have to go out-of-state. In return, Battelle gets access to an accredited laboratory, and the federal Combined DNA Index System.
“What they get is the public lab – what we get is the technology,” said DeWine.
“A lot of the work already done will benefit the project, and the state of Ohio,” said Richard Guerrieri, a forensics research leader at Battelle.
Guerrieri and Mark R. Wilson, a Battelle colleague, talked to Forensic Magazine about the joint venture. Both Guerrieri and Wilson are both DNA experts who formerly worked for decades in FBI labs. They said the partnership – and the work on the difficult missing and unidentified persons cases – will be a breakthrough for criminal science.
“Validation is confirming and having the full understanding of what you’re looking at,” said Wilson, forensics research leader for Battelle. “Once we have the validation, we can move into casework.”
NGS, also known as massively-parallel sequencing, has been developed and refined over the last decade. Its potential has grown as DNA sensitivity and computing have grown in tandem. NGS allows millions of DNA fragments from even minute samples to be strung together at the same time, instead of the one-at-a-time methods of the past, which are still the established standard in crime labs internationally. The new way allows identifiers to emerge from even seriously degraded samples that were previously inscrutable to experts. It also works faster, experts said.
But the forensic science of NGS needs to be proven before it can hit the courtrooms.
“With this new technology, you need to issue reports and defend the results,” said Wilson.
“This deal brings one additional ‘win’ – to be able to help potentially solve these difficult cases,” said Guerrieri. “It brings a level of resolution, and a level of passion, to the work.”
Farther down the road is the use of the NGS system for phenotyping, the use of the genetic markers to predict appearance, race, and other traits. Such technology is currently being used for investigative leads by some agencies – but its use is still not fully established.
“My personal opinion is the technology is there – but we don’t yet have the full understanding of the markers,” said Wilson.
“The potential is amazing,” added DeWine, at last month’s press conference. “We’re proud to be among the trailblazers.”