Rapid & Safer Drug Testing with Mass Spectrometry

Rapid & Safer Drug Testing with Mass Spectrometry

Scientists have demonstrated a new method that allows police to quickly predict the contents of suspected drugs packages using Direct Analysis in Real Time mass spectrometry.

When faced with a suspected illicit drug, police officers will not know the identity or potency of the substance. Investigators will often perform something called a presumptive test to indicate what kind of drug they are dealing with. These tests typically involve scooping up a small amount of the material and adding a few drops of a specific chemical reagent to the sample. If the drug is present, a chemical reaction will occur resulting in a distinctive colour change to indicate a positive result.

Unfortunately, these tests can be somewhat hazardous, necessitating both the potential exposure to harmful substances in order to sample the drug, as well as the use of chemicals in the field. This has become particularly problematic in recent years as more uncharacterised and potentially harmful illicit drugs have hit the market. For instance, recent news reports have seen first responders complain of exposure to the drug fentanyl, a particularly potent opioid harmful even in small quantities.

In light of this, the need for rapid, reliable and safe drug screening techniques is greater than ever before.

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have teamed up with Maryland State Police and Vermont Forensic Laboratory to develop a method of quickly predicting the contents of a suspicious package without the need to handle the contents. We’ve all seen how airport staff check luggage for traces of explosives. They swipe an absorbent material over the surface of the bag, introduce that swab to an analyser, and receive a rapid alert to the presence of specific controlled substances. This new method essentially follows the same process. Upon discovering a package suspected of containing illicit drugs, the investigator simply swipes an absorbent wipe across the surface of the package, and that swab is then exposed to the mass spectrometer.

The new method utilises Direct Analysis in Real Time mass spectrometry (DART-MS) analysis. DART-MS is a form of ambient ionisation mass spectrometry in which the sample is placed between the DART ion source and the inlet of the mass spectrometer, allowing chemical components in the sample to be ionised and drawn into the mass spectrometer for rapid analysis. The major advantage of this technique is that it requires no form of sample preparation, so the sample itself (or in this case a swab of the sample) can be analysed directly for almost instantaneous results. You can read more about how DART works here.

In a study recently published in the journal Forensic Science International, the technique was applied to almost 200 suspicious packages, including plastic baggies, pill bottles, envelopes, and tin foil bags. From these samples, a range of illicit substances were detected, including fentanyl, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and synthetic cannabinoids. Also detected on a couple of the packages was carfentanil, a particularly powerful opioid thousands of times more potent than heroin and a great concern for first responders. It was shown that only a few micrograms of drug on the outside of the packages could be detected. The study has successfully demonstrated the possibility of rapidly screening for the presence of harmful drugs such as fentanyl, even when mixed with other substances like heroin. In fact, the contents of the packages were successfully predicted 92% of the time.

This new technique enables police officers to rapidly screen suspicious bags and packages for the presence of illicit drugs, whilst reducing the risk of exposure to harmful substances. By quickly and safely predicting the contents of a package, steps can then be taken to ensure the evidence is processed under appropriate conditions, for instance in a laboratory fume hood and with appropriate protective equipment. Although a complete analysis by standardised laboratory methods would still be required for legal purposes, this new technique at least allows for the rapid, and safe screening of suspected drugs.

 

Sisco, E. Robinson, E. L. Burns, A. Mead, R. What’s in the Bag? Analysis of Exterior Drug Packaging by TD-DART-MS to Predict the Contents. For. Sci. Int., 2019, In Press.

 

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Discovering Donor Characteristics from Bloodstains with Infrared Spectroscopy

Discovering Donor Characteristics from Bloodstains with Infrared Spectroscopy

From interpreting the incident to pinpointing the perpetrator, the presence of blood at a crime scene can provide clues vital to solving a crime.  Since the advent of DNA profiling in the 1980s, police have been able to use DNA to link suspects to crime scenes, making the detection and collection of biological evidence more important than ever before. However successful DNA profiling relies on a positive match with either a DNA profile from a suspect or one stored in a database. With nothing to compare a profile to, the DNA is of limited use and the trail may quickly run cold.

But what if investigators could gain even more information from a bloodstain at a crime scene? What if it were possible to rapidly figure out whether the donor was male or female, or establish their race? And all of this without shipping samples back to the lab.

New research conducted at the University at Albany in New York has demonstrated that it may be possible to establish some individual donor characteristics in a matter of minutes.

Past research has already demonstrated that the biochemical composition of blood differs between males and females and individuals of different races. But the ability to obtain this information on-site at the crime scene in a matter of minutes could change the way body fluids are processed. In a recent study, Prof. Igor Lednev and his team applied a technique known as attenuated total reflection Fourier transform-infrared (ATR FTIR) spectroscopy to blood analysis, with the aim of establishing whether characteristics such as sex and race can be determined from bloodstains.

FTIR is an analytical technique capable of providing information about a material’s chemical information. In brief, the device directs infrared radiation towards the sample. Some of this radiation is absorbed by the material, and some passes through. The sample’s absorbance of this light at different wavelengths is measured and used to determine the material’s chemical information. After analysis a spectrum is produced, which acts as a kind of molecular ‘fingerprint’ of the sample. The different features in the spectrum relate to the different chemical components in the sample.

Infrared spectra were produced by analysing the blood of 30 donors (a mixture of male and females of Caucasian, African American and Hispanic racial origin). From this, researchers could observe any differences occurring between blood from male and females, and blood from members of different races. Using this data, the researchers built a model capable of classifying samples based on their chemical profile. By taking the chemical profile of an unknown bloodstain and comparing it with a model containing bloodstains from numerous different groups, the model can predict the likely classification (i.e. whether the donor was male or female and which racial group they belong to). In this study, it correctly classified bloodstains around 90% of the time.

Using infrared-based techniques has a number of advantages over other methods of analysis. As the technique simply necessitates the direction of light towards the bloodstain, the technique is non-destructive. Inevitably this is perfect for criminal investigations – destroying the evidence is never ideal. IR spectroscopy is also amenable to portability, lending itself well to on-the-go analysis at crime scenes and so potentially saving a lot of time by avoiding sending unnecessary samples back to the lab for analysis.

Although only a pilot study, this research has demonstrated the possibility of establishing donor characteristics through the rapid and non-destructive analysis of bloodstains. The ability to determine features such as sex and race would enable police to significantly narrow down the search for suspects or victims, ultimately preserving valuable time and money. Furthermore, the ability of FTIR to non-destructively analyse evidence on-site renders it an ideal tool for forensic analysis. Inevitably a great deal more research will be necessary, and if the technique ever becomes operational, it would be years before such technology and methods were suitable for deployment to crime scenes and use as evidence in criminal trials.

 

Mistek et al. Phenotype profiling for forensic purposes: nondestructive potentially on scene attenuated total reflection Fourier transform-infrared (ATR FT-IR) spectroscopy of bloodstains. Forensic Chemistry. 2019, In Press.

 

The Smell of Death: Confirming Decomposition using Volatiles in the Air

Odour mortis, or the ‘smell of death’, refers to the chemicals released from the body during decomposition. Renowned forensic anthropologist Arpad Vass, who has studied the chemical changes occurring in the body after death for many years, recently shared the details of a particularly interesting scenario. The article, published in the May 2019 issue of Forensic Science International, details a fascinating case in which the occurrence of human decomposition was demonstrated based solely on chemical compounds in the air for the first time, without any human remains actually being found at the scene. The article doesn’t specify suspect or victim details, but anyone familiar with the case will recognise it instantly.

First, a brief introduction. In 2008, a woman was charged with the murder of her daughter, allegedly storing the victim’s body in the boot of her car for several days before disposing of the remains and dumping the car. Police had initially been alerted to the incident by the suspect’s parents, who had picked up their daughter’s abandoned car and noticed a foul decomposition-like odour coming from the vehicle. Coupled with the fact they had not seen their granddaughter in several weeks, the suspect’s mother promptly called 911.

The police soon took possession of the car and agreed that the scent of decomposition was emanating from the vehicle. Numerous cadaver dogs, specifically trained to detect odours from decaying bodies, alerted to the back of the car, further suggesting some kind of decomposing remains had been stored in the boot of the car. Fly pupae were also discovered. Entomological evidence is frequently associated with decomposing human remains, with flies and various other insects known to visit corpses to feed or lay eggs. Although no human remains were found in the car, several weeks later the body of the missing girl was found in a wooded area near the suspect’s home, and the case promptly turned into a murder investigation, with the victim’s mother as the prime suspect. However with minimal physical evidence linking the body to the suspect’s car, law enforcement turned to a somewhat unconventional tool to aid their investigation.

Various pieces of evidence were recovered from the vehicle, including segments of carpet, scrapings from the tyre wells, and various pieces of rubbish found in the car. Interestingly, investigators also collected some air samples from the boot of the car. Air can be sampled from remote locations using a technique that utilises air pumps to draw in gaseous analytes from the environment and capture them in a sorbent trap. This collection of trapped compounds can then be transported to a laboratory for analysis. In this case, about 35L of air was collected from the vehicle into a type of sorbent tube, then analysed using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS). GC/MS is a well-established analytical technique, allowing scientists to separate the individual chemicals in a mixture and identify those components. You can read more about how mass spectrometry works here.

This process allowed researchers to figure out exactly which volatile chemicals were present in the suspect’s vehicle and establish whether these are everyday compounds likely to be found in a car, or if they had some other source.

In the years leading up to this case a great deal of research had been conducted at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Facility. At this facility researchers were investigating, among other things, the odours produced during the decomposition of a human body. The odours created during this process are the result of volatile compounds produced as the body decomposes, and research has demonstrated that hundreds of individual chemical components are formed during this complex process. As part of research at the university, researchers had constructed a vast database of hundreds of chemicals detected during the process of human decomposition, including the different decomposition stages at which those chemicals appear. By comparing the chemicals detected in the vehicle with those stored in the database, it was possible to identify compounds known to be produced during the decomposition process. There was an 80% match between the compounds detected in the boot of the car and those chemicals considered to be relevant to human decomposition. Furthermore, unusually high levels of chloroform were also detected in the boot of the car.

The results from the air samples collected and chemical extracts from various other artefacts in the car led the researcher to conclude that there was a very high likelihood of a decomposition event occurring in the boot of the car. Many of the compounds detected in the vehicle could only be logically explained by the presence of decomposing remains.

Despite these findings (and various other pieces of evidence presented in court), the jury reached a verdict of not guilty for the charge of murder. Not too surprising an outcome, considering the use of air analysis to detect decomposition had not previously been used in a legal investigation. However in closing arguments, the defence stated that the victim had in fact been placed in the vehicle for transport (claiming the victim’s death had been accidental), ultimately confirming the results of the analysis.

 

Vass, A. A. Death is in the air: confirmation of decomposition without a corpse. Forensic Sci. Int. (2019). doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2019.05.005

Vass, A. A. Odor mortis. Forensic Sci. Int. 222, 234–241 (2012).

 

Interview with Lecturer in Forensic Science Dr Kayleigh Sheppard

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Dr Kayleigh Sheppard works as a lecturer in forensic science at Liverpool John Moores University.

What is your current job role and what does this entail?

I currently work as a lecturer in Forensic Science at Liverpool John Moores University. My role is divided between lecturing undergraduate and postgraduate students, supervising undergraduate and MSc research projects and conducting research. I teach students across a range of undergraduate courses including BSc Forensic Science, BSc Forensic Anthropology and BSc Policing with Forensics, as well as postgraduate students on the MSc Forensic Bioscience course. Across these courses, I deliver a range of lectures and practical sessions focusing on topics such as Crime Scene Investigation and Forensic Methods with a particular focus on the photography of crime scenes and the evidence contained within them. Photography techniques covered include crime scene photography using natural light and flash, and more advanced photographic methods such as oblique lighting, alternate light source photography and automated 360◦ photography. I introduce the topics and theoretical principles of each topic to the students through lectures and workshops and then give the students hands on experience and the opportunity to develop their practical skills for each of the techniques through practical classes.

The practical classes delivered consist of fingermark enhancement, recovery and comparison, footwear mark recovery, evidence packaging techniques and crime scene documentation and photography. In addition, the students put together everything they have learnt throughout the semester and demonstrate their crime scene investigation techniques using simulated crime scenes that we are able to mock up within our crime scene houses. I supervise a range of student projects at both undergraduate and masters level which investigate advanced photographic methods of crime scenes, using 360-degree photography or mobile technology.

What initially attracted you to your particular field of research?

I have always had an interest and passion for the sciences, particularly biology and chemistry and knew that my future career would be in a scientific field. Whilst at school I was a keen problem solver and enjoyed reading crime and true crime novels. The combination of these traits led me to investigate a potential career in forensic science and so I started my BSc in Forensic Science at Staffordshire University. Throughout the course I was particularly interested in the crime scene aspects and envisaged myself going on to work as a crime scene investigator in the future. Upon completion of my course I had the opportunity to undertake a placement with Staffordshire Police. The placement allowed me to put my knowledge from my degree into practice, alongside crime scene investigators, whilst also providing me with the opportunity to conduct a research project. This project focused on my interest in crime scene investigations whilst incorporating emerging technologies- another interest of mine. The project was entitled “Next generation crime scene recording and forensic data use within criminal investigations”. The project was so well received by the Forensic staff that I wanted to pursue this area further and applied for a PhD investigating the use of 360-degree panoramic photography in a forensic context at Staffordshire University.

Alongside my PhD I was able to teach undergraduate students, introduce them to 360◦ camera technology, and provide them with hands on experience using the technology. The ability to apply my research into the curriculum to enhance the students learning sparked my interest in academia. An academic position provides the best of both worlds, allowing me to pass on my knowledge and experience to the students and teach them about forensic science, whilst also allowing me to continue to pursue my own research avenues. It is very rewarding to teach the students about modern and emerging technologies to assist with criminal investigations and to see their enthusiasm about a topic they may not have been introduced to before. The best part about being a lecturer is having the ability to teach students about topics they are unfamiliar with and pass on that knowledge. The most gratifying part of my job is when a student does not understand a topic or does not enjoy it, but through explanation and discussion using different learning techniques, the students understand the topic and begin to enjoy it.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently involved in?

Most of the research that I conduct investigates the use of 360◦ panoramic photography for documenting and presenting crime scenes. At first, the research sought to validate the technique, regarding its accuracy for taking measurements at a scene. The research has begun to adapt the technology to answer specific research questions, which may aid crime scene investigators at the crime scene, by adapting the technology to make it do something that it could not do before.  For example, the 360◦ camera has been adapted to include alternate light sources for the detection of biological fluids, which are invisible to the naked eye, to simultaneously detect and document them in situ at a crime scene. Further research has also looked into the extent to which modern technologies for documenting crime scenes have been utilised for the presentation of evidence in the courtrooms and the factors that may be affecting the use in courtrooms.

The use of alternate light sources has also branched into other research avenues within the forensic field. Current research being conducted investigates the importance of cleanliness and prevention of cross contamination within Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARC). The issues with identifying contamination in SARC environments is that in order to ensure cleanliness, the contaminants would ideally be visible.  Many biological fluids are invisible to the naked eye and therefore we cannot see them – so how do we know whether they are present on a surface or not? Most biological fluids fluoresce under specific wavelengths of light and enable them to be visualised. Research currently being conducted is seeking to determine the effectiveness of a SARCS-LED light source (CopperTree Forensics Ltd.) for identifying human blood, semen, saliva and vaginal secretions in small volumes (less than 1 μl) on a variety of surfaces typically encountered in SARC facilities. A SARCS-LED enables staff to ‘see’ biological traces, so provides a more targeted forensic clean. This layered approach alongside current ATP testing, and improved cleaning methods, can help to deliver a more thorough service. Using such a light source to identify biological fluids or contamination should enable a more effective cleaning protocol to be employed within SARC facilities, providing a more robust anti-contamination process which is in line with the Forensic Regulator expectations.

Research Figure

Semen and vaginal secretions deposited onto a white vinyl surface. Left – observed under natural light and the biological fluids are not visible to the naked eye. Right – observed under a blue SARCS-LED (445 nm wavelength) and demonstrating biological fluid fluorescence.

What are some of the biggest challenges in your area of research?

Academia can be a challenging place to work and trying to make sure that you maintain the knowledge of the forensic science field whilst it is continually updating can be challenging and often involves lots of reading to stay current, as well as attending training courses and conferences. High profile criminal court cases in forensic science are particularly interesting as they demonstrate to the students the importance and real world impact of their degree and the work they will be conducting in the field, so it is important to stay on top of these as well. At such an early stage in my academic career, being only 26, I felt as if there was a lot of pressure to prove myself worthy. As a result, I take advantage of every opportunity that is presented to me to further my knowledge and experience. It can be challenging to maintain a balance of lecturing, creating engaging and interesting sessions for the students, whilst continuing to conduct research and publish within the field. What keeps me going is my passion and enthusiasm for the subject area and the fact that I can shape the minds of the future.

Finally, do you have any advice for young scientists eager to pursue a career in your field of work?

For any individuals who want to pursue a career as a forensic scientist and get involved with any area of forensic science, make sure that you know what to expect. If you are simply going into this field because of your love for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on the television that is not enough. The field of forensic science is not always as glamourous as it is often portrayed in the media, and some of the analysis techniques are not always conducted at the drop of a hat. However, saying that, forensic science is such an interesting and exciting field that is constantly evolving – no two days will ever be the same.

If you are interested in pursuing a career in this area you will need to make yourself stand out from the crowd. Over the past few years, this is a field which has become extremely competitive and you need to be able to demonstrate that you are a more suitable candidate than everyone else – what makes you different, what makes you stand out? In order to do this I would highly recommend getting any work experience that you can within the area. Working within criminal investigations can be tricky with active casework, but you do not know unless you ask. Some universities have partnerships with the local police forces so make sure to take advantage of any opportunities they can offer you. If this is not possible, try to get experience in laboratories to demonstrate your ability to follow protocols, work to standard operating procedures and avoid contamination. Alternatively, you could volunteer as a special constable within the police or assist within other police departments. Many of the skills that you obtain from these experiences can be transferred into the forensic field and more importantly demonstrates your commitment to enhancing your knowledge and skill set.

Website: LJMU Kayleigh Sheppard

Twitter: @Kay_Sheppard1

 

Detecting Homemade Bombs & Explosives in Sweat

Detecting Homemade Bombs & Explosives in Sweat

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are often used in the implementation of terrorist attacks, for instance the 2005 London underground bombings, the suicide bomb attack during a concert in Manchester, and the 2015 Paris attacks. Unfortunately the components required for building these devices are commercially available and the bombs relatively easy to construct.

Many explosives leave a characteristic trace after being handled or detonated, and it is essential that investigators can rapidly identify the components used in homemade explosives. Furthermore, the ability to trace the explosives back to particular individuals and terrorist cells is essential in preventing future attacks. Unfortunately effectively detecting and tracing explosives and explosive precursors can prove difficult. On top of this, after the production and implementation of IEDs, it can be difficult to prove a suspects’ involvement in bomb construction.

Researchers at King’s College London and Northumbria University have been working on developing new ways to detect homemade explosives.

The newly developed approach, recently published in the journal Analytica Chimica Acta, uses a technique known as ion chromatography high resolution mass spectrometry (IC-HRMS) to separate and detect chemical components. By applying the technique to compounds commonly encountered in the analysis of explosive residues, the method was shown to be effective in detecting a large number of components used to make bombs, capable of detecting just trace amounts of the chemicals faster than previous techniques.

Upon developing this method, the team of researchers then demonstrated that the approach could be applied to the analysis of human sweat, with the aim of indicating an individual has recently handled explosives. Participants were made to handle Pyrodex powder, a black powder propellant used in firearm cartridges. After handling the powder for a few minutes, palm sweat and fingermark samples were then collected at numerous timepoints over several hours. Analytes related to the explosive material were readily detected using the method. The real-world implementation of this technique could help prove contact between a suspect and explosive material or explosive precursors.

 

Gallidabino et al. Targeted and non-targeted forensic profiling of black powder substitutes and gunshot residue using gradient ion chromatography – high resolution mass spectrometry (IC-HRMS). Analytica chimica acta. 2019, In Press.

Developing Fingerprints on Metals to Aid Knife & Gun Crime Investigations

Developing Fingerprints on Metals to Aid Knife & Gun Crime Investigations

Fingerprints are something of a staple in forensic science. For over 100 years we have used the unique details of fingerprints to identify victims and suspects, and draw connections between people and objects to place suspects at crime scenes. Fingermarks are encountered on all kinds of surfaces that can have an effect on how easy it is to visualise the mark and for how long the mark persists. As a result, the market is flooded with products for developing fingerprints, from powders to glues to chemical reagents.

Despite the options available, some surfaces, for instance metals, still prove somewhat tricky when it comes to developing prints. This is due to various factors, such as how the chemical results in the fingermark and developing reagents may react with the surface. This is obviously problematic when trying to obtain fingerprints from knives and firearms, a matter of particular importance right now worldwide. For years researchers have been examining methods of improving the detection of fingerprints on metals, including metal vapour deposition and different chemical reagents, but reliable techniques are still few and far between.

Researchers at the University of Nottingham and University of Derby in the UK are using analytical chemistry to solve this problem. Using a technique called Time-of-Flight Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometry, or ToF-SIMS, researchers have developed a way of producing images of fingerprints of various metal surfaces. ToF-SIMS utilises an ion beam which is passed along the surface of the sample, causing ions (charged chemical components) to be emitted from the sample. These are then analysed by mass spectrometry and the results used to produce a kind of map of the surface.

Researchers deposited fingermarks on various types of commonly-encountered metals, such as stainless steel and aluminium, and studied the effects of time on the ability to visualise the prints. Cyanoacrylate (or superglue) fuming, a traditional technique particularly popular when analysing metal surfaces, proved to be unreliable, with the print’s quality degrading rapidly or disappearing completely in just a matter of days. However using this new mass spectrometry-based approach, fingermarks could be visualised in samples up to 26 days old, a vast improvement on traditional methods.

The high-resolution images produced sufficient detail to not only observe ridge detail in the marks, but even the shape and position of individual sweat pores. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly in a forensic context, the technique is non-destructive. Current methods of visualising fingerprints tend to involve adding a powder or chemical to the print, inevitably altering and potentially contaminating it. But the use of ToF-SIMS ensures the print remains intact, so further development or analysis techniques can be employed if required.

By enabling the visualisation of fingerprints that previous techniques may have failed to reveal, this method has the potential to not only aid investigators as they face the ongoing rise of knife and gun crime, but could also be applied to cold cases. However it is important to note that fingermarks deposited as part of research are not always indicative of real-world samples. In reality the fingerprints we leave behind can vary greatly in the amount of material deposited and the type of material being left behind. Traces of anything handled can be deposited in the fingermark, adding many potential variables to the real-world applicability of this kind of work. Despite this, the study demonstrates a promising new technique for the development of fingermarks on metals, which could have great implications in the investigation of violent gun and knife crimes.

 

Thandauthapani et al. Exposing latent fingermarks on problematic metal surfaces using time of flight secondary ion mass spectroscopy. Science & Justice. 2018, 58(6).

Tracking Movements with Fingernails

Tracking Movements with Fingernails

When human remains are discovered, investigators will often turn to routine methods such as fingerprinting, DNA profiling and the use of dental records to identify the individual. But in the absence of database records for comparison, such traditional techniques may not prove all that useful, and forensic scientists must look for new ways to identify the unknown.

In recent years the use of stable isotope analysis has aided forensic investigations, particularly in establishing the geographic origin of unidentified human remains. Isotopes are different forms of an element. For example, oxygen has three naturally occurring stable isotopes: O16, O17 and O18.  These isotopes are incorporated into substances in the environment (such as water) in varying ratios. The relative abundance of isotopes can be influenced by various factors in a process known as isotopic fractionation. It has been found that isotopic ratios can be related to different regions of the world. For example, the tap water in one country may have a completely different isotopic signature in comparison to water in another country. How does this relate to the isotopes found in our bodies? Well, you are what you eat. As you consume food and water from a particular area, the atoms in our bodies express abundances similar to the food and water consumed.

This provides the basis for using isotope analysis to trace materials back to a certain geographic region. It has already been demonstrated that the isotopic analysis of bones, teeth and other bodily tissues can allow for individuals to be traced to particular locations, typically through the analysis of oxygen, hydrogen and sulphur isotopes. However last year, researchers at the University of Utah took a different approach, this time focusing on fingernails.

As with bones and teeth, the isotopic content of our fingernails will be affected by factors such as the food and water we consume. As fingernails are estimated to grow at a rate of 3-4mm per month, they are a prime target for studying isotopic patterns in an individual over a shorter timespan (less than six months as oppose to years). This is by no means the first study of isotope abundances in fingernails, but previous research has typically focussed on single timepoints rather than tracking the same individuals over time. As global travel becomes more commonplace, it is increasingly likely that human remains could have originated from any part of the world. Therefore, we need to understand how travel can cause changes in isotope abundances within the body.

This study aimed to establish whether fingernail isotope ratios were different in a group of local people in comparison to non-locals who had recently moved to the area (in this case Salt Lake City in the United States). Over a period of a year, fingernail clippings were collected at multiple timepoints from a group of volunteers, about half of which were local residents and the rest individuals who had recently arrived from various locations across the US and the world. The fingernail clippings were cleaned (to remove surface components and contaminants that could interfere with the analysis) and subjected to analysis by isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS). IRMS is a particular type of mass spectrometry that allows us to measure the isotopic abundance of certain elements typically hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. You can read more about IRMS here.

The isotope values of samples from residents were used to construct a baseline of expected values for the area, with isotope values from non-residents’ samples being compared with these. Initially, samples from non-residents showed a wide range of isotopic values, which is to be expected given they had only recently moved to the area. Some residents did fall within the expected range of locals, but these participants had moved from relatively nearby locations, which could explain the similar relative isotopic abundances. However after about 3 months, the fingernail isotopic patterns shifted until the non-residents could no longer be distinguished from the residents. This indicates that although the relative abundance of isotopes in our fingernails can shed some light on geographical movement, it can only provide information relating to the past few months. Inevitably there will always be a certain amount of error associated with such analyses, with variation from the likes of short-term travel and random dietary changes being impossible to account for.

 

Mancuso, C. J, Ehleringer, J. R. Resident and Nonresident Fingernail Isotopes Reveal Diet and Travel Patterns. Journal of Forensic Sciences. 2019, 64(1).