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CSI: Orono

 


CSI: Orono
Molecular Forensics Lab uses the latest in wildlife DNA analysis to help solve cases and train the next generation of Maine scientists

About the Photo: Junior Lisa Kranich, a double major in molecular and cellular biology and biochemistry, assists in the Molecular Forensics Laboratory.
 

Irv Kornfield
Irv Kornfield

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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 freezer."

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 morphological mysteries.

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 the truth.

"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 strategies.

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
September-October, 2007

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