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June 8, 2021 | Human ID and Forensics

Young Investigator Josephin Heinrich on canine genetic makers

The Young Investigator Community is a forum for young forensic researchers and graduate students to share their achievements and aspirations with peers, friends and colleagues. Each new Investigator blog is a personal introduction to one of these talented researchers. Read on as they share what first drew them to forensic science and explain what sustains their passionate commitment to their work.

This new Investigator blog introduces Josephin Heinrich, a Ph.D. student in the lab led by Professor Walther Parson at the Institute for Legal Medicine, Medical University of Innsbruck. This active group of scientists has published more than 400 peer-reviewed articles in the forensic and medical genetics field and is internationally recognized as a leader in forensic mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis.

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

Following my Bachelor studies in biology, I had the chance to write my Master’s thesis in molecular biology at the Institute for Legal Medicine Innsbruck. During this time period, I was able to gain a first insight into forensics. I have always been interested in how scientific-based knowledge can assist legal proceedings. As I progressed through school, I also developed a keen interest in science, particularly biology. Forensic science, therefore, represented a combination of my interest in criminal investigation with the biology aspects I enjoyed.

For a forensic scientist, the goal is to objectively analyze submitted evidence and return objective, science-based interpretation to the investigator, thereby supporting the solving of a crime. What really makes forensic science unique is its interdisciplinary and demanding character. As a forensic scientist, you have to develop analytical and problem-solving skills on a high level and open your mind for various solutions to a problem. These characteristics, the challenges and versatility of forensic science, made me pick this field of research.

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

In the project called LASSIE (Linking externally visible attributes in dogs to genetic markers), we outline a new concept by combining canine DNA analysis with the principles of forensic DNA phenotyping and suggest a study to develop a forensic molecular genetic tool for analyzing externally visible traits in domestic dogs. This choice is justified as dogs are ubiquitous and play a major role in many aspects of human social life. Candidate SNPs have carefully been selected from the literature and verified via Sanger-sequencing. We put together a set of promising markers to be analyzed with Massively Parallel Sequencing (MPS). In combination with a bioinformatically-based prediction model, we aim at offering a forensic molecular genetic tool that can help predict canine phenotypes.

3. Please describe your typical day in the lab.

A typical day might not actually start in the lab, but rather outdoors collecting dog samples. These samples have to be prepared for extraction, typically via the QIAGEN DNeasy Blood & Tissue Kit. Further, the samples are either archived with detailed documentation, or directly used for lab work. Currently, this lab work includes canine specific real-time PCR for quantification, STR for identification and MPS for canine DNA phenotyping.

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

I prefer working with non-human, to be more precise, canine samples. Besides my interest in forensics, dogs have always been my focus. For this project, I was lucky enough to combine my two fields of interest. A profound knowledge about dogs, particularly with regard to breeds and canine genetics, is of great importance for this project. I am convinced that the analyses of non-human samples are an important branch in forensics that has not yet been fully explored. Basic analytical tools are missing so I see a great potential for this in future research. Working in this field is very promising. It was particularly surprising and satisfying to see the functionality of some genetic markers for phenotyping and their precision in adding trait characteristics to the overall phenotype.

5. What are the benefits of your project?

Human forensic genetic research has made great efforts to obtain information about a suspect using DNA markers. Forensic DNA Phenotyping is one example of these recent innovative developments. It enables the prediction of externally visible characteristics of a person (e.g., eye color) by analyzing suitable phenotype-specific DNA markers. Results offer opportunities to strengthen eyewitness accounts, or even provide investigative leads when eyewitness testimonies are not available.

Despite its initial promise for predicting appearance from human DNA, this branch of forensic research has progressed slowly, mainly because it is complex. Numerous genes in conjunction with other relevant factors usually contribute to a phenotype. It appears that the complexity of human genetic inheritance significantly hinders a fast and consistent implementation of DNA phenotyping in forensic practice. Therefore, a comprehensive image of a person cannot be derived by means of DNA-based methods in the very near future.

An alternative strategy is the use of a model organism in order to learn from simplified basic conditions and to avoid difficulties inherent in human-based studies. Domestic dogs are not typical laboratory animal like the mouse, but the scientific value of dogs as a model species has been proven by many studies. Experiences gained in this project might be useful for human phenotype prediction as well. Moreover, this project might initiate further phenotyping projects.

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

Actually, the sampling process has very often been the biggest challenge. Even though we are collecting the samples in a non-invasive way, like buccal swabs, we have to put a lot of effort into persuading dog owners to support us. Most people consider their dogs as family members and the sample collection was therefore viewed with some skepticism. However, by taking the time to explain the project and the scientific goals and – above all – showing empathy, the concerns could be dispelled in all cases so far.

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

I am using the DNeasy Blood & Tissue Kit routinely to extract canine DNA from many different canine tissues (e.g., saliva, blood, urine, hair and nails). Moreover, I applied the QIAamp Fast DNA Stool Mini Kit on canine stool samples. Both kits generated convincing results and were straightforward and easy to handle. Additionally, the QIAGEN product pages offer a great variety of protocols to apply their kits to different tissues, for instance, using the DNeasy Blood & Tissue Kit to extract DNA from canine urine.

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

My favorite spare time activity is spending time with my own dog, Ori, enjoying our beautiful Tyrolean Mountains for daily hikes.

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