LIVERMORE, Calif. (KGO) -- Deon Anex, Ph.D. and Katelyn Mason, Ph.D. are the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
But instead of fingerprints and a magnifying glass, they're able to ID their suspects by tracking proteins from their bodies.
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"What we do is very similar to what is done in DNA, in the sense that there are markers in DNA that you can make a measurement on and link those to an individual. And we're trying to find the analogous strategy with proteins," explains Anex.
They first perfected the technique with hair and more recently expanded it to bones. Protein samples are extracted, then run through a powerful device known as a mass spectrometer. The process can spot patterns in the proteins that are influenced by mutations in a person's DNA. The result is a unique genetic signature, related to DNA, but from a source that's much more durable.
"There are many instances where say the remains have been out in the environment for a very long time and the DNA has degraded or they've been in a very harsh condition say with a fire fatality In those cases perhaps the DNA's been destroyed and maybe the protein has lasted," adds Anex.
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Scenarios could include victims who died in fiery plane crashes or maybe the intense fires that followed the World Trade Center attacks. In addition, the Livermore team believes the technique might potentially identify the remains of soldiers from wars of the past or help in cold cases where useable DNA evidence no longer exists.
Researcher Katelyn Mason believes the truth is out there.
"To me, my heartthrob moment would be exonerating an innocent human from being subjected to being in the box," says Mason.
In the meantime, the team continues to refine the technique, for the future day when a fragment of bone might unlock a decades old mystery or perhaps the next, crime of the century.
Written and produced by Timothy Didion
New technique could supplement DNA evidence