Move Over DNA, There’s a New Tool to Aid in Human Identification

The use of DNA in forensic science and archaeology advanced the identification of humans light years beyond what had been possible before its discovery. Now, the use of protein markers in human hair may pick up where DNA sometimes falls short.

A team of scientists from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory published the results of their research in the use of 185 protein markers found in human hair as biologically-identifying agents on September 7, 2016 in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.

While DNA has proven to be ground-breaking in its ability to identify the biological sample from one person among the billions on earth, it can degrade over time, rendering its usefulness to be moot. The peptide chains from the various proteins identified in a single strand of human hair is far less prone to such degradation, as the researchers were able to prove in hair samples of six human remains, one of which was over 250-years-old.

The researchers found that the protein markers not only remained stable in archaeological human specimens, but whose combinations were unique enough to identify hair specimens from 79 living people of European and/or African descent as individuals able to “be distinguished from a population of a million.”

The study’s authors explained that in the near future, using the methods they employed in their research will result in the use of about 100 of the protein markers found in hair to be able to distinguish an individual among the entire population on earth with a single hair.

Brad Hart, of the study’s co-authors and director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Forensic Science Center, said of these new findings and their potential:

“We are in a very similar place with protein-based identification to where DNA profiling was during the early days of its development. This method will be a game-changer for forensics, and while we’ve made a lot of progress toward proving it, there are steps to go before this new technique will be able to reach its full potential.”

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