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Police could soon be using hand germs to trace criminals

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WASHINGTON — Forensic scientists could soon use hand germs to help identify criminals and victims, a study said Monday.

Researchers led by Noah Fierer of the University of Colorado at Boulder swabbed individual keys on three personal computer keyboards, extracted bacterial DNA from the swabs and compared the results with bacteria on the fingertips of the keyboards’ users.

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They also lifted germs from an unspecified number of other private and public computer keyboards that the three individuals did not use to see if there was a cross-over between the bacteria on an individual’s hands and bacteria on keyboards that had never been touched by that individual.

The bacteria on each person’s fingers were “personal” and gave a much closer match to the germs on the keyboard they used than to bacteria found on keyboards they had never touched, the researchers said.

The researchers also swabbed nine personal computer mice that had not been touched for at least 12 hours and took bacteria samples from the palms of their owners.

The bacteria on each mouse were “significantly more similar” to those found on the owner’s hand than to bacteria taken from 270 other hands, which were on record from previous studies.

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“Each one of us leaves a unique trail of bugs behind as we travel through our daily lives,” said Fierer, a professor at the University of Colorado’s ecology and evolutionary biology department, adding that hand bugs could “become a valuable new item in the toolbox of forensic scientists.”

Hand germs are abundant, can be lifted from small areas and are remarkably hardy. The researchers found that colonies of hand bacteria remain essentially unchanged after two weeks at room temperature, and recovered within hours of handwashing.

Fingerprints, however, can be smudged or impossible to obtain, such as on fabric.

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And unless there is blood, tissue, semen or saliva on an object, it is often difficult to obtain enough human DNA for forensic identification, said the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“Given the abundance of bacterial cells on the skin surface… it may be easier to recover bacterial DNA than human DNA from touched surfaces although additional studies are needed to confirm that this is actually true,” the study said.


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Supreme Court to hear sentencing case for ‘Washington sniper’

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He has described himself as a "monster" and confessed to his crimes. Lee Boyd Malvo was 17 years old when he and an accomplice carried out a deadly three-week shooting spree that terrorized the Washington area in 2002.

Malvo was sentenced to life in prison without parole and the Supreme Court is to hear arguments on Wednesday on whether such a sentence can be meted out to a juvenile.

The nation's top court is hearing the case after a court in Virginia ruled that Malvo deserved another sentencing hearing because his age at the time was not taken into account.

Virginia's attorney general appealed the ruling and the Supreme Court will be deciding whether its 2012 and 2016 rulings that mandatory life sentences for minors are unconstitutional applies retroactively to Malvo's case.

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NASA unveils flexible, one-size-fits-all space suits

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Bye bye to bunny hops: when US astronauts next touch down on the Moon, expect them to walk almost as they do on Earth, thanks to a new generation of spacesuits offering key advantages over those of the Apollo-era.

Prototypes of the Orion Crew Survival Suit that will be worn on the journey and the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) for the lunar surface were unveiled at NASA's Washington headquarters Tuesday ahead of the agency's planned return to the Moon by 2024.

Standing in front of a giant US flag, spacesuit engineer Kristine Davis wore a pressurized red, blue and white xEMU suit, showing off a vastly improved range of motion thanks to bearings systems on the waist, arms, and legs.

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Hong Kong leader abandons policy speech after heckles from lawmakers

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Hong Kong's embattled leader abandoned a State of the Union-style speech on Wednesday after she was heckled by rowdy opposition lawmakers during chaotic scenes inside the city's legislature.

The speech by chief executive Carrie Lam was billed as an attempt to win hearts and minds after four months of seething pro-democracy protests.

Instead, it laid bare the intense polarisation coursing through the semi-autonomous financial hub after weeks of huge and increasingly violent rallies.

And it was swiftly dismissed by protesters who called for a new rally on Sunday.

Lam, who has historic low approval ratings, tried twice to begin her policy address inside the Legislative Council which had opened for a new session some three months after it was trashed by masked protesters.

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