When the Maine Warden Service has 150 pounds of unidentified
meat in a freezer and a suspected poacher in handcuffs, the first call
officers are likely to make is to Irv Kornfield, one of the country's
leading experts in wildlife DNA analysis. As a University of Maine
professor and director of the Molecular Forensics Laboratory on
campus, he uses his expertise to convict criminals and exonerate
innocent suspects, conduct fundamental and applied research, and
educate the next generation of inquiring scientists and citizens.
Kornfield's lab, adorned with African artifacts and filled with
forensic reports and tissue samples from across the country, is unique
in its approach to scientific inquiry. Highly trained students, both
graduate and undergraduate, not only work as researchers in molecular
biology and population genetics, they also conduct tests and interpret
data in the forensics lab, providing a valuable service to state
agencies and other clients. Under Kornfield's careful guidance,
students become active participants in the laboratory process,
learning to apply the latest in DNA analysis technology to a broad
range of investigations.
"I think that one of the most important things that we have been
able to achieve here is a meaningful connection between forensics and
teaching," says Kornfield, the 1998 Maine Professor of the Year and
the 2007 UMaine Presidential Outstanding Teaching Award recipient. "A
significant part of my efforts in forensics is aimed at the
educational component. Some of my students go on to become forensic
scientists and geneticists, but I hope that all of them come away with
a better understanding of the scientific method and the legal system."
Kornfield and his students utilize the latest research
techniques to determine the genetic characteristics of evidence found
at crime scenes in Maine and across the country. From fish tissue
shipped from Utah to antler samples confiscated in Maine's North
Woods, evidence is handled using strict chain-of-custody protocols.
"Through the cases that are handled in the lab, students become
trained in the interpretation of DNA and the techniques used to
analyze samples," says Kornfield, a member of the American Society of
Crime Laboratory Directors. "The data we collect can be used to link
the remains of a field-dressed deer recovered from the crime scene to
the blood in the back of the pickup to the meat found in the poacher's
With modest funding from the university since the lab opened a
decade ago, Kornfield and his team have handled hundreds of samples.
Most are for the Maine Warden Service, but the lab also handles
casework for many other states. Kornfield has testified numerous times
in Superior Court, and his test results have been used in cases
ranging from accusations of night hunting to possession of endangered
species. But because these analyses are done in an objective,
academic, scientific context, whether the suspect is innocent or
guilty is immaterial. The evidence speaks for itself, he stresses.
By helping to establish an extensive reference database of genetic
markers, the UMaine researchers have made significant contributions to
scientists' overall understanding of the genetic complexities of New
England's deer and moose populations as well.
"In order to be able to match two genetic samples, you need to know
the relative frequency of the genetic markers for the area's overall
population," says Kornfield. "We were one of the first to establish a
comprehensive reference for whitetail deer and moose, and we are
working on one for black bear."
By comparing genetic markers found in a blood or tissue sample
collected in a criminal investigation to the established standard,
researchers can determine its origin and match it to other samples
from the case.
The lab is involved in more than just criminal cases, however.
Whether it's a beached sea monster in Canada or a wayward chupacabra
in Central Maine, Kornfield and his student researchers are at the
ready, poised to weigh the DNA evidence against the rumors, tall tales
and excitement that swirl around the latest biological and
While the sea monster carcass turned out to be the misshapen
remains of a whale shark and the much-publicized, chupacabra-like
"devil dog" was little more than a feral mutt, investigations such as
these help to illustrate the struggle between science and spin for
Kornfield's students. Examples from actual cases establish a
real-world connection that highlights the power of science and the
importance of the scientific method, both for students in Kornfield's
lab and in his popular class, Introduction to Forensics.
From Scooby-Doo to CSI, television shows and movies contribute
to the fascination with forensics, and the popularity of Kornfield's
class reflects that interest. Students sign up in droves to fill out
mock crime scene reports, examine fake blood spatter and learn about
the degradation of DNA. While the crime scenes are realistic mock-ups,
the learning is real, and Kornfield sees the class as an important
opportunity to inspire students to look beyond the obvious and uncover
"One of the primary objectives of the course is to have students
understand hypothesis testing, a concept that underlies all science.
An outcome of this understanding is the students' ability to formulate
and ask informative questions."
The emphasis Kornfield puts on education applies to his research as
well. His latest project incorporates the use of cutting-edge
microarray technology to help determine the genetic basis for various
conditions and anomalies in wildlife populations. Functioning in much
the same way that the human genome does in diagnosing genetic
diseases, microarray profiles of animal species can be used to
identify the specific genes and sets of genes responsible for
everything from oversized antlers to chronic disease.
"We will be able to use microarrays from the bovine genome to look
at genetic characteristics in deer. By comparing the affected and
unaffected conditions on the microarray, we can identify the genetic
correlates for specific traits," says Kornfield.
Kornfield and his students have developed a panel of DNA
markers for identifying the degree of hybridization in individual
deer. Matings between whitetail deer and mule deer result in hybrid
offspring that are often larger than either parent. Hybridization
between the two species can have important implications in hunting and
other aspects of deer population management.
"Being able to distinguish between the two species and their
hybrids is important in determining what's legal to shoot, and hunting
organizations are interested in the implications in naming trophies,"
says Kornfield. "A male hybrid can have huge antlers that could ensure
its place in the record books, but how is it categorized? This project
is also interesting from a population genetics perspective by helping
to determine the degree to which genes of one species are able to
infiltrate the population of another. We find genetic signatures that
are consistent with such past contacts."
As associate director of the School of Marine Sciences, Kornfield
continues to apply his knowledge of DNA and molecular markers to fish.
His ongoing research examining the genetic relationships among
populations of freshwater fish in Africa has made significant
contributions to the field of molecular evolution, and his analysis of
populations of haddock and other fish in the Gulf of Maine assists
fisheries managers as they work to develop better management
In recognition of his research, Kornfield was elected a fellow of
the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Regardless of the project, it's the connections he builds with
students that he finds most rewarding.
"Some of the most rewarding experiences in science are those that I
have shared with students," Kornfield says. "Creating new knowledge is
exceptionally exciting. Involving students in all phases of research,
from experimental design to publication in the scientific literature,
can have a profound impact on their lives."
by David Munson
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