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Crime scene biotech

Biotechnology is used by forensic scientists to collect or process trace evidence such as hair, skin, blood or semen samples, which is found at crime scenes.

Collecting evidence

When a crime is discovered the scene is examined in order to look for clues that will identify suspects and provide evidence for the courts. In New Zealand, evidence is collected from crime scenes by police officers or scientists from Environmental Science and Research (ESR). They must follow strict guidelines while gathering evidence, so that samples are not contaminated or degraded and their analysis is admissible in court.

Detecting evidence

Crime scene evidence can include a wide variety of substances such as hair, bodily fluids, fibers, paint chips, soils or gunshot residue. For substances to be useful as evidence they are usually compared to similar items from suspects, because of this, particular care is taken to ensure all substance are collected carefully and kept free of contamination.

In some cases, forensic scientists use biotechnology techniques to help detect important evidence. For example, a chemical called luminol, which glows brightly in the presence of blood, is used to detect small amounts of blood that are not visible to the naked eye.

DNA profiling

Every individual has unique DNA, making it very useful for identifying people involved in a crime.

Get information sheet: DNA profiling

DNA can be isolated from a wide range of evidence left at a crime scene – from skin, hair and semen samples to bacteria in dirt!

Analysis of evidence

Evidence at a crime scene may only be found in small, trace amounts so forensic scientists use a variety of techniques including microscopic analysis, mass spectrometry, chromatography and DNA analysis.

Once samples have been collected from a crime scene, ESR carry out forensic analysis on them. They might analyse skin, blood or urine looking for the presence of drugs or process DNA evidence in the hope of identifying someone.

Interpreting the evidence

The results of these analyses need to be interpreted. This could mean comparing them to a standard reference, such as legal blood-alcohol limits for driving a car, or comparing DNA profiles of victims or suspects. New Zealand has a national DNA databank where DNA profiles are stored.

Get information sheet: New Zealand’s DNA databank

Presenting the findings

The findings may be presented in court, either as a written report or by ESR scientists acting as expert witnesses.


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Did you know?

Soil samples from clothes can be matched to crime scenes by profiling the DNA of microbes in the soil.

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