WCU professor nets $397K to evaluate newly emerging methods of DNA analysis

Mark Wilson, director of the forensic science program at Western Carolina University, recently received an award from the National Institute of Justice in the amount of $397,098 to evaluate emerging methods of DNA sequence analysis.

Using deep sequencing information from hair, mouth and blood samples, WCU’s research will attempt to reveal whether the forensic DNA typing field might benefit in making interpretational changes in some aspects of DNA analysis. Deep sequencing is a method to find minor variations within a DNA sequence that are present as a small percentage of the whole.

“This research may have an impact on the number of interpretations that are inconclusive,” Wilson said. “In other words, it may result in more definitive conclusions, although this remains to be seen.”

The research also might show the extent to which deep sequencing can offer insight into DNA variations, which is important, Wilson said, because using the latest technologies should strengthen forensic conclusions.

Finally, the research might reveal the general level of sequence heteroplasmy (the presence of more than a single DNA type within a person’s body) in hair samples as compared with blood and mouth samples, all common targets of some kinds of forensic DNA analysis.

Wilson was inspired to apply for the grant by a solicitation for research proposals in DNA analysis from the National Institute of Justice, an agency within the Department of Justice.

“Recent research suggests that more work needs to be done in this area,” Wilson said. “Using deep sequencing techniques, some researchers have found—as expected—additional levels of variation, and they made suggestions that this variation could impact forensic casework.”

Research is scheduled to begin Nov. 1 and continue for two years, with Wilson; Brittania Bintz, a research scientist with the WCU forensic science program; and two graduate assistants working on the project.