If you have ever watched a crime show on TV such as CSI or Law & Order, you know that science has always gone hand in hand with criminal investigations. The application of science to criminal and civils laws during a criminal investigation is known as forensic science and it has been used to convict and exonerate people for hundreds of years. The most common methods of forensic science is the use of fingerprints, the analysis of DNA, toxicology, and ballistics. Recently, researchers at the University of Chicago have been working on a completely new and groundbreaking form of forensic science that utilizes people’s distinct microbiome, or more simply put, the microscopic cloud of microbes and bacteria that clouds your body everywhere you go.
Instead of dusting for fingerprints and scouring the scene of a burglary for any bit of DNA that could be found, this new technology would allow investigators to simply swab any surface that was likely touched by the perpetrator and send it in to a lab. The lab would then synthesize the isolated bacterial DNA found in the sample and come up with a distinct microbiome signature. The next step in the process would be to remove what was contributed by the residents of the household and what is left is the exact microbiome of the burglar. Having this information might seem as useful as a finger print, but what makes this technology so groundbreaking is that it can do so much more.
Something very unique about microbiomes is that they vary by gender, age, and lifestyle. This means that if investigators are able to obtain a microbiome signature from a crime scene, they will be able to get a very good idea of the suspect allowing investigators to easily narrow down the list of suspects with information that would have been impossible to obtain with modern day forensic science. Another way this new technology is better than any other is that it is thought to be extremely individualized, even to the point that identical twins can be told apart.
One thing to take in to consideration is that this technology is still very new and there are many uncertainties and problems that need to be solved first. The biggest of these problems is that people’s microbiomes change over time rendering the sample obtained at a crime useless after a certain period of time. Another problem is that criminals could take drugs to temporarily change their microbiome so they cannot be found guilty using this technology.
As is the same for any new technology, the future is very uncertain and more test will have to be conducted before microbiomes can see any use in a real crime scene or court room. Many are optimistic that this technology will be accurate and reliable enough to be used not too far into the future, but extreme caution and rigorous testing seems like the only responsible thing to do as forensic science is a science of life and death for those convicted of crimes that they may have not even committed.