DNA may have met its match when it comes to solving crimes. In the future, it may come down to just a single hair, thanks to work done by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
A single strand of hair contains a lot of answers, according to the research. Lab scientists have developed a way to identify a person based on the unique pattern of proteins in their hair. The new technique may soon help police identify suspects.
"If we find hair in a crime scene, we compare it with the hair from a suspect," says Brad Hart, diretor of the Forensic Science Center. "If those patterns match, we can say with a statistical probability of 1 in a million that the hair came from that person."
Scientists say they’re on the verge of being able to link a single hair to a specific person worldwide.
"We are getting close to 1 in 10 billion, more than the population of Earth," Hart says.
Scientists start the process by dissolving the hair then separating the proteins in it. They then use a machine to measure the properties of those proteins to find clues about the person’s unique DNA. Essentially, getting a fingerprint from the hair.
"Those are patterns that identify patterns of specific individual based on hair protein," Hart says.
And because hair is resilient to environmental damage and can last hundreds of years, it's considered more reliable than DNA evidence, which can be fragmented or damaged.
Scientists say it could be about five years before the new technique can be used in a courtroom to help convict or exonerate a suspect.
Currently, prosecutors rely on experts to examine two hairs under a microscope and compare them. Scientists say the new technique is much more likely to hold up in court.
"We’re not relying on a subjective opinion from an expert but relying on scientific results," lab researcher Katelyn Mason says.
Scientists say it's possible convicted criminals' hair protein markers could be entered in a database similar to the one used now to archive fingerprints.
Beyond forensics, the new technique also can help archaeologists detect protein in hair more than 250 years old.
"We can use protein in the hair as a way to understand the ancestry of an individual and where on the planet did their ancestors come from," Hart says.