Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Danielson progressing on DNA analysis

DNA analysis

Phil Danielson is working on a new way to analyze DNA. PHOTO BY: Wayne Armstrong.

After seven years of research, countless hours of methodical calculations and experiment, and some nights spent in his lab on a gurney converted into a makeshift cot, molecular biology Professor Phil Danielson says this could be the year.

This could be the year Danielson and his team of students and researchers put it all together: a new way of separating and identifying genetic fingerprints through what’s called rapid mitochondrial DNA analysis.

“That’s the DNA you use when you don’t have anything else,” Danielson says, summing up one of the potential breakthroughs in the use of a system being developed at the University of Denver.

By using techniques pioneered by Danielson and his students, investigators could quickly, and cheaply, eliminate potential suspects from even old samples of DNA, the biological material that identifies living things through a series of genetic markers.

The techniques could speed investigations, help police separate commingled samples of DNA — such as blood droplets from the victim and attacker — and apply technology commonly referred to on the CSI television shows to even minor crimes, helping catch serial burglars, for example, before they graduate to violent assaults.

It hasn’t been an easy seven years, Danielson says. That’s, in part, due to the fact that others had tried to use a process to examine damaged or mingled DNA in the past, without success. But through persistence, and by trying new things such as limiting the focus to particular segments of DNA, the DU lab has been able to fine-tune the process and make it work. Funding in the early years was tight, but with each success, Danielson says grants have become more available, and each breakthrough wins new believers.

Along the way, the lab has picked up support from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the National Science Foundation, DU’s Denver Research Institute, and Mitotyping Technologies’ researcher Terry Melton. 

“We’ve been showing that this really works,” he says. “In forensics, if you want to show that something works, you’ve got to beat it to death. We’ve spent the past year doing hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tests to show that this works.”

This year, Danielson is anticipating the final level of acceptance, the approval of national DNA forensic laboratory accrediting agencies. When that comes, the professor says he hopes to reach out to law enforcement to partner in DNA identification for cold case investigations as well as offering a low-cost, speedy DNA alternative for investigators tracking such “smaller” crimes as burglary, where DNA evidence has been too expensive to pursue.

Accreditation would make DU the first mitochondrial DNA lab in Colorado and could also help provide a basis for use of this particular type of evidence in courts in the state and around the country.

Danielson will be presenting key findings to a national technical working group on DNA forensics and sharing results with researchers in Korea and China. Growing federal support gets the project rolling faster and faster toward acceptance and advancement.

“What the NIJ is doing now is bringing together the biggest names in mitochondrial DNA, the military, the FBI,” he says. “This is all very encouraging.”

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