This study sought to identify novel highly specific and sensitive messenger RNA (mRNA) biomarkers for the identification of skin. In forensic casework analysis it is often necessary to attempt to obtain DNA profiles from microscopic amounts of biological material left behind by perpetrators of crime. The ability to obtain profiles from trace biological evidence is routinely demonstrated with so-called 'touch DNA' evidence, which is generally perceived to be the result of DNA obtained from shed skin cells transferred from donor to an object or person during physical contact. Although a genetic profile from trace biological evidence is routinely obtained, the tissue source of the profile is rarely known. This merely perpetuates the 'mystery' of the nature of 'touch DNA' evidence, allowing the significance or meaningfulness of genetic profiles obtained from these samples to be challenged.
Numerous reports state that the tissue source of origin of 'touch DNA' evidence cannot be determined due to the small amount of biological material present, while others conclude that the DNA profiles are obtained from shed skin cells (as opposed to, say, buccal epithelial cells present in saliva traces) without any scientific basis for this assertion. Proper identification of the biological material present might be crucial to the investigation and prosecution of a criminal offense, and a misrepresentation of the nature of the evidence can have undue influence on the perception of the circumstance of the crime. Thus far, research has failed to provide forensic scientists with feasible, definitive methods to identify the tissue origin of 'touch DNA'. In the current study, gene candidates were identified using both literature searches and whole transcriptome deep sequencing (RNA-Seq). Utilizing this dual approach, the study identified and evaluated over 100 gene candidates. Five mRNA markers were identified that demonstrated a high degree of specificity for skin. Using these markers, the researchers have been able to successfully detect and identify skin using as little as 5-25 pg of input total RNA from skin and, significantly, in swabs of human skin and various touched objects. One of the markers, LCE1C, is particularly highly sensitive and was detected in the majority of skin samples tested, including touched objects. The researchers have been successful in incorporating the five skin biomarkers into two multiplex systems. Although further work is needed to optimize the assay for routine casework, the initial studies demonstrate that a molecular-based characterization of the biological material recovered from touch samples is possible. (Published Abstract)
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