Researchers use pet hair as a new method for purr-fecting criminal detective work

An innocent little moggy could help crime scene investigators identify suspects and/or victims as scientists develop a new method of DNA identification.

Cat hair could be used to solve crimes.

In a study published in the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics, UK researchers detail a unique method for extracting DNA from a single cat hair, one that is ten times more sensitive than a previous technique.

The researchers believe that this pet-focused genetic detection method could help identify criminal felons or victims in crime scene investigations.

Mitochondrial DNA

When cats shed their hair, the root is usually absent, meaning that the section of hair which usually contains the most vital genetic information is not available if needed for criminal investigations.

DNA or deoxyribonucleic acid is the thread of life linking all organisms on Earth. DNA is unique to each and every organism, providing particular instructions for making proteins needed in critical biological processes. The unique sequence stored in your DNA is why you have the colour hair or eyes that you do, why you might prefer a particular food and process information differently from others.

During sexual reproduction, mammals like humans and cats inherit 50% of their DNA from the male parent and 50% from the female parent. DNA is also inherited from another source, the mitochondria. This cellular organelle is an important production centre, generating essential chemical energy required to power cells, those that constitute tissues, and organs, giving rise to a properly functioning organism.

Both males and females can inherit mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). The consensus among the scientific community is that mitochondrial DNA can only be passed down to offspring through the maternal line. However, 21st-century research is beginning to bring to light evidence to the contrary.

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The researchers of the present study developed a new method for identifying the entire stretch of mitochondrial DNA from a single cat hair, not just a short sequence.

The study co-lead, Dr Jo Wetton (of the University of Leicester's Department of Genetics & Genome Biology), said that they used the earlier method of mitochondrial DNA detection in a previous murder case "but were fortunate that the suspect's cat had an uncommon mitochondrial variant, as most cat lineages couldn't be distinguished from each other. But with our new approach virtually every cat has a rare DNA type and so the test will almost certainly be informative if hairs are found."

In criminal cases where human DNA is not so easily available, the presence of a stray cat hair could serve as a valuable piece of connective evidence with the possibility of tracing a cat to a specific owner, whether it be the criminal or victim. The researchers believe that their newly developed technique could also be applied to dogs as well.

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