Young Investigator Athina Vidaki on DNA methylation profiling
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!