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Fingerprints 2.0: DNA forensics

Fingerprints 2.0: DNA forensics

Have you ever wanted to solve a crime? It seems to be a common fantasy – stepping into the shoes of a flinty-eyed detective, assessing the evidence and leaving no stone unturned to tighten the net around the criminal until he is forced to confess. These days a lot of that work is done via forensic science. There are quite a lot of games on the Google Play and Apple Stores based on forensic TV shows like CSI and NCIS in which you analyse the evidence to deduce who committed the crime.

Better than an app, though, is an actual course that teaches you forensic techniques, involves an online crime scene where all the evidence is there – if you know where to look for it – and is based on real cases. A course that comes from the University of Cambridge is better still. The Institute for Continuing Education at Cambridge welcomes budding Miss Marples on its online-only course Forensic Science: DNA Analysis, introducing them to genetics  and forensic science, how DNA is collected from crime scenes and how it is analysed in the laboratory.

As well as using DNA to solve a crime, the course examines how genetics has changed over the years and possible future developments, and approaches the ethical issues relating to the creation of a national/global DNA database. Throughout the course specific forensic case studies are used to illustrate the points being made.

Students will learn how chromosomal DNA from the Y chromosome is different from mitochondrial DNA and chloroplast DNA found in plants. The latter doesn’t mean that plants can murder intentionally and the Day Of The Triffids is upon us. Plant DNA can help to locate a person at a specific place, by grass stains, bits of leaf or seeds caught in their clothing. Conversely, the absence of such material can exonerate a suspect.

Not only have bad people been put behind bars thanks to DNA evidence, it has also freed some who were wrongly convicted – some of whom were jailed before DNA analysis became common. So it’s an important part of modern and future criminal investigation. No previous experience is required to take this course, just curiosity and a taste for the macabre. 

A shorter online introduction to forensic science is available from IOA here