February 01, 2021 | Human ID and Forensics

Young Investigator Athina Vidaki on DNA methylation profiling

The Young Investigator Community celebrates the achievements of our talented and passionate young Investigators.

February 01, 2021

The new Investigator blog spotlights these young researchers and graduate students as they talk about the excitement of starting a career in forensics and human identification.

This new Investigator blog introduces Dr. Athina Vidaki, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Genetic Identification at Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam. Athina’s research looks at ways that changes in specific DNA methylation biomarkers (CpG sites) can help identify cell types in forensically relevant tissue/body fluid material, estimate the age of an unknown person and even discriminate between identical (monozygotic) twins with identical DNA profiles.

1. Tell us about your background and how you became interested in forensic science?

I was lucky to have been born and grown up in Crete, the largest island of Greece and a true paradise on earth! Since my early years, I was fascinated by the science of life and was curious to understand how it works and evolves through time, at both the individual and population level. Hence, I decided to study biology at the National & Kapodistrian University of Athens. During my Bachelor’s studies I had the opportunity to conduct a research internship in the US at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, the largest cancer research center of the country. It was that summer when I first conducted experiments of my own and worked in a fast-pace lab environment that made me completely fall in love with research. From that time, which was eventually a turning point in my career, I knew that I wanted to become a life-long academic researcher.

At the same time, I have always had a love for forensics and its impact on victims and their families. Having lost a close family member from a somewhat unknown cause of death, I got to experience the consequences of injustice myself at an early age that shaped my personality and interest. Pursuing a career in forensic science came as an easy choice to me. After all, coming from a family of a police officer dad, public prosecutor mum, and eventually a lawyer sister, you can say the pursuit of justice was kind of always running in my blood! I was privileged to have been selected for both a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Forensic Genetics at King’s College London in the UK. I completed my studies there in late 2015.

2. Can you provide a summary of the project you are working on?

Since early 2016, I have been working as a postdoctoral researcher at Professor Manfred Kayser’s group at the Department of Genetic Identification at Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam (Erasmus MC), in the Netherlands. Over the last 5 years, I have been further specializing in the field of forensic epigenetics, particularly in how DNA methylation profiling can help us solve (more) crimes. More specifically, in our current projects we are looking at how changes in specific DNA methylation biomarkers (CpG sites) can help us confirm the identity of cell types in forensically relevant tissue/body fluid material, estimate how old an unknown person is for forensic intelligence purposes, discriminate between identical (monozygotic) twins with rather identical DNA profiles in thousands of unsolved cases worldwide, as well as give clues on a person’s environmental exposures or lifestyle habits, such as tobacco smoking or alcohol abuse. The field of forensic epigenetics is fairly new, but very fast developing, and it is very exciting to continue exploring its potential and promises!

3. Please describe your typical day in the lab.

What I truly love about my job is that there is no such “typical” day in the lab. Every day is different and exciting! My work as a postdoc is multi-dimensional, and I get to do many different things on a daily basis. My post involves full-time research, meaning that my main responsibilities include reading a lot, designing experiments, troubleshooting data, performing data analysis as well as writing and reviewing manuscripts! I am lucky to have the support of excellent young scientists that perform the experiments with me, so I have time for writing grant proposals and planning our future projects. I also spend time in teaching and supervising students, and I am currently designing my own educational course. Of course, I also consider that disseminating our research is key and one of my favorite activities, so I often spend my time preparing presentation slides and attending meetings. Managing all these responsibilities can be quite stressful at times, so I tend to increase my productivity by combining days working in the lab and at home.

4. What do you find most interesting about your project? Have you seen any surprising results?

The power of genetics in identifying individuals is well-established and the basis of our forensic genetics field. However, I am a true believer of not only fate in life (genetics), but also of creating our own destiny (epigenetics). This is the classic nature/nurture debate, often discussed among scientists. For certain traits, genetics is very deterministic for a phenotype, as we see, for example, in certain appearance traits or genetic diseases. In other cases, it is all about the choices we make! What I find the most interesting about my epigenetic projects is the powerful ability of our DNA to adapt to our environment, and how these adaptations can impact future generations long-term. For example, it is really rewarding to know that if one wants to reverse the bad choice of smoking, around 80 % of the smoking-related DNA methylation changes will eventually reverse within 5 years. But it is also quite interesting to know that the residual 20 % will remain for life to remind us of our mistake. Isn’t this how it usually works also with our scars? Just a thought. Furthermore, it has been an eye opener for me to realize how important early development is for epigenetics, and how, for example, our mother’s choices or environment during pregnancy can really ‘scar’ us for life!

5. What are the benefits of your project?

My research aims at establishing and expanding applications of epigenetics in forensics, for the purpose of increasing crime solving rates. Epigenetics can help us as an additional tool in forensic investigations, such as by adding additional traits in forensic DNA phenotyping (age, smoking status, etc.). Epigenetics can also help us solve crimes that are not solvable with genetics only, such as by differentiating between identical twins when one of them is suspected to be involved in a crime and has been DNA-identified. Our forensic epigenetic projects help us understand the potential of DNA methylation biomarkers for these applications. The projects also highlight the challenges of this approach that we need to overcome to successfully implement it in forensic casework.

6. What are the major challenges faced while working on your project and how do you overcome them?

The major challenges I have been facing in my forensic epigenetics projects are certainly technical. In applied epigenetics, scientists often “borrow” methods and techniques from applied genetics. And while this is often successful, in most cases we face additional challenges deriving from the nature of DNA we work with, namely bisulfite-converted DNA. To be able to “read” DNA methylation changes in epigenetics, and more specifically to be able to differentiate between methylated (mC) and non-methylated (C) cytosine in CpG sites, we need to “convert” the DNA. We can succeed in translating DNA methylation ratios (mC/C) in DNA sequence variation (C/T) with a method called bisulfite conversion, but the chemical process damages our DNA. Of course, this is not a big issue in most medical or other applications where the DNA quality is good, and quantity is large. However, as we all know, forensic-type DNA often lacks these, making our investigations extra challenging. So far, most forensic epigenetics studies perform exploratory work using optimal DNA amounts. In the future, having methods and technologies specifically designed for our purpose will be very important. Hence, to overcome existing challenges in forensic epigenetics, I currently aim to focus my work, together with my colleagues, in innovating epigenetic/epigenomic technologies that can help us succeed at what we must do in forensic genetics – read more from less.

7. Which QIAGEN products do you use and what do you like about the products?

For my research, I use a wide range of QIAGEN products. For example, for all my projects I use the QIAamp DNA Investigator Kit for rapidly purifying high-quality, high-yield DNA. I have been very happy with the kit’s performance over the years, and I like how QIAGEN provides a different protocol according to the sample type. For bisulfite conversion, I have used the Epitect Bisulfite Kit with an easy protocol for both spin-column and 96-well plate formats. But by far my favorite QIAGEN product is the Epitect Methylight PCR Kit, which I use for most of my qPCR-based Taqman assays. These PCR reagents know how to handle bisulfite-converted DNA for guaranteed amplification on the first try, and they always perform better than any other PCR reagents I have tried!

8. Outside of forensic science, what are your hobbies?

I must say I am a true science geek, constantly eager to learn the latest updates from a wide range of scientific fields, from cancer genetics to evolutionary biology, from psychology to engineering. So, to achieve this I often watch documentaries, follow YouTube channels or read online scientific magazines. I am always fascinated by how amazing some scientists are in communicating their work! Outside of science, I love travelling. I try to combine travel with attending conferences – one of the privileges of being an international researcher. I have been lucky to visit most of Europe, Australia, Singapore, South Korea and several states of the US. The best trips for me are the ones that combine culture, food and nature! I also love cooking, playing the piano, challenging myself with Pilates… and trying any kind of crafting there is!

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