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  December 11, 2000

Henry Lee to Join UConn Scientists
in New Center on Forensic Uses of Genetics

Watch out, America's most wanted. A group of UConn genetics scientists is teaming up with Henry Lee, the renowned forensic expert and chief emeritus of the state's crime lab, to explore ways of using humans' genetic makeup to help solve crimes.

The parties recently signed a memorandum of understanding to create a new Center for Applied Genetics and Technology at the University, where researchers will develop scientific methods that will help police catch criminals by making genetic information a key tool in the analysis of crime scene evidence.

Chancellor John D. Petersen says the center is a "fantastic opportunity at the leading academic edge of the future" that will greatly strengthen UConn's position in teaching and research in this field: "It combines our abilities as a land grant institution with state needs and economic development in a forward-looking way."

Ian Hart, interim vice provost for research and graduate education, considers the center "a milestone in the further development of biotech sciences at UConn." He adds that the center will encourage an interdisciplinary approach, bringing together faculty from several University departments and the Health Center.

Using DNA samples as identification tools is a relatively new concept in law enforcement, but one that Lee has pioneered in recent years. He acknowledges the complexity of DNA technology but urges that greater emphasis be placed on its potential as a tool for justice.

"Evidence needs to be recognized, preserved, collected, submitted, examined and interpreted," notes Lee, who announced his retirement as state public safety commissioner last summer. "If you mess up the evidence, you've messed up the investigation."

Lee and his UConn partners anticipate that the new center will become the base for collaborative research between themselves, industry forensic researchers and scientific staff of the DNA Identification Unit of the Connecticut State Police Forensic Sciences Laboratory - an organization Lee built that has a worldwide reputation for excellence.

The center's goal will be to use forensic applications of genetics as a way to forge research projects among partners who traditionally have little to do with one another, says Philip Yeagle, professor and head of molecular and cell biology, who will serve as the center's director. The center will also include facilities for educational exhibits, workshops and serve as a training site for visiting forensic scientists from around the world.

Yeagle acknowledges the prestige Lee's participation brings, citing his involvement "on virtually all major forensic cases of our time, from O.J. Simpson to human rights violations in Croatia." But he stresses that the center also takes advantage of UConn's strength in applied genetics and a strong corporate interest in working with the genetics faculty to test and develop products before marketing them commercially.

Citing the convergence of interest in developing ways to use the information coded in DNA, which determines why one person looks and acts differently from another, Yeagle says the center "gives us the opportunity to develop a scientific niche that has a very easily grasped application and is consistent with our land grant mission."

Recalling this summer's release of the first draft of the Human Genome Project - the deciphering of 3 billion molecules that are the blueprint of human life - Yeagle expects that "applying genome analysis and DNA typing to forensic science, the center can develop powerful new tools for solving crimes, establishing guilt or innocence, and supporting drug enforcement."

The center will consist of two units: the Henry C. Lee Learning Center in Science and Technology, and the Laboratory for Non-Traditiona l DNA Typing. Both will be located in Beach Hall and will serve as resources for other units of the University.

The Learning Center will serve as the nucleus for outreach and educational activities, using applied genetics and forensic themes in museum-type displays. Mobile exhibits will be developed for middle and high schools that feature basic scientific information and cases to solve. Drawing on Lee's extensive collection of memorabilia, there are plans to present mock crime scenes, based on actual case elements, and provide museum-goers with "hands-on" experiences, such as collecting biological evidence for DNA typing.

Additionally, the Learning Center will serve as a think-tank for new methods and approaches in forensic genetics, by hosting conferences for academic and industry researchers, and forensic scientists. The ideas generated will be tested and implemented at the Laboratory for Non-Traditional DNA Typing, which will serve as the center's research arm and advanced training resource.

Carll Ladd, director of the DNA Identification Unit, and five other scientists in the unit who are adjunct UConn faculty and have been working in applied genetics for several years will play a lead role in collaborative activities.

"The laboratory will enable the applied genetic faculty to collaborate with scientists from the forensic community on projects that have few, if any, counterparts in the country," says Linda Strausbaugh, professor of molecular and cell biology and head of the department's genetics program, who will develop and coordinate the laboratory's research programs. Research projects under consideration include DNA typing in non-human populations; forensic applications of the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA; and new technologies for DNA typing.

DNA typing of non-human trace evidence may be especially useful for linking primary and secondary crimes scenes, proving or disproving an alibi, and providing criminal investigative leads, Strausbaugh explains. She notes that in recent cases, genetic typing of palo verde trees, cats and parasitic invertebrates have all been successfully used to link a suspect to a crime scene. "The increasing value of this type of evidence creates a pressing need to expand methodologies, population screens, and databases to include targeted non-human organisms," she says.

DNA analysis for human identification is about 10 years old and is widely considered the most significant advance since fingerprints were developed more than a century ago. Recent research has focused on the Y chromosome (inherited through the male line) and on mitochondrial DNA (inherited through the female line).

Y chromosome markers are especially useful in the analysis of rape cases or other sexual crimes, and for establishing paternity. A forensic application of mitochondrial DNA is the identification of human remains by comparing a missing person's profile to maternal lineage relatives.

David Bauman