It’s the Little Things

 

Has anyone ever told you that it’s the little things that get you? Maybe you didn’t get in as much trouble as I did growing up but I have been told (usually by Mom) and have told (bad guys during my Cop life) that it is the little details, those fine points that even the most careful of us overlook that end up bringing all our nefarious plans crashing down on our heads. When I think of this I think of wearing gloves to hide your fingerprints. Or if you are a teenager in upstate New York in January, maybe watching out where you leave footprints in the snow when sneaking out at night. Oh I also got caught once when my folks asked me if I was power sliding my little VW down the street during an ice storm. When I denied that I would ever do something like that they gently showed me to the tire tracks that lead directly from the sideways prints on the street to my rear tires parked in the driveway: the little things.

I saw this little gem of an article and had to share. The next time you step onto a subway train, board an airplane, or take someone else’s phone to watch the newest annoyingly cute animal video think about this. “How your micro-biome can put you at the scene of the crime,” by Kai Kupferschmidt from Science Magazine.

Turns out that by the time we are 3 or 4 years we have gathered a unique set of bacteria from the environment we grow up in, and that mix remains fairly stable throughout our lives.

In 2010 a paper from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers showed that bacterial DNA recovered from computer keyboards matched the micro-biomes found on their owners’ fingertips. The authors also sampled bacteria from nine computer mice and used the results to pick the owners out of a database of 270 micro-biomes.

Did anyone else just squirm a little when they read that?

A paper from 2015 identified that individuals have a theoretically unique microbial cloud that we carry with us, and deposit wherever we happen to go. We shed bacteria constantly spitting it from our mouths, breathing them out. Bacteria are so small that our clothes have no effect at containing them. Whenever we sit down or pick something up bacteria is deposited on that surface and it persists until the next person comes along. In the paper, researchers measured the bacterial cloud surrounding volunteers by placing them in a sanitized chamber and sampling the area around them. What they found was that they were able to identify individuals by this micro-biome we carry with us.

To apply this to the criminal world researchers swabbed places suspects are believed to have touched at crime scenes then sequence captured DNA in the laboratory. Once sequenced the profiles can be compared to a database and individual strains of bacteria can be identified. The mix, or unique ecosystem of different species of bacteria that are identified in the sample from the crime scene can then be compared to a known suspect sample to see if the two micro-biomes match.

In a practical evaluation, researchers in Illinois staged a fake break in then took samples from where the “burglars” handled things in the house. When the signatures from the suspects were reviewed the scientists not only could identify individual micro-biomes, but from residues in the samples determine the amount of alcohol one of the ‘suspects’ consumed each week and that one of them was on migraine medication. Even if the bacterial cloud could not be determined to be individual enough to identify a suspect to the exclusion of all others, (to date a sample size and technique has not been complete enough to try and take an identification based on bacteria to court), how great would it be if traits such as drug use, medication, or drinking habits could be used as leads in narrowing down the suspect pool?

Recently the J. Craig Venter Institute received a $900,000 grand from the National Institute of Justice to build a micro-biome database. That is a first step in evaluating whether or not bacteria can be used to identify someone. Practical application is a long way off.

Regardless I thought it interesting that when we now warn someone that it’s the little things that get you. We really mean it is the little things that get you, like your own bacteria, little.

Reference:

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/03/how-your-microbiome-can-put-you-scene-crime

Don’t forget to check out my work on Amazon or any other bookstore. My newest novel Where Angels Sing is on sale now.

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Detective X

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You remember the JJ Abrams show Fringe? I loved that show but I think what I loved the most about it was the crazy scientist Walter Bishop. The character was similar to other anchors of a good mystery series. The odd genius who can come up with a quick fix, or some obscure science that nobody understands to save the day. Kind of like a MacGyver without the mullet.

What if there was a real life genius who had a hand in almost a thousand criminal cases, laid the ground work for modern forensics, and was almost completely forgotten by history? I know, it sounds awesome. See below.

In 2014, a curator was searching the archives of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for a new exhibit. In a box, she found nine notebooks that belonged to a little known scientist who’d worked for the agency in the early 20th century.

Wilmer Souder was an everyday farm boy from southern Indiana. He went to college and earned his Ph.D. In 1916.  He then went to work at the National Bureau of Standards (now known as NIST).

Historically Souder is known for his work on materials used for dental fillings. When he’s mentioned in NIST historical records he’s described as the founder of the dental materials research program. His biography however also contains a seemingly random anecdote noting he was involved in investigating the murder and kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh.

Turns out that in addition to being an expert on dental fillings Wilmer Souder moonlighted as a sought-after forensic expert in handwriting analysis, typewriting analysis, and ballistics. His expertise and influence effected more than 800 cases throughout his career. Prior to the uncovering of his journals he was known to history only as Detective X.

How Souder came to be involved in forensic is not clear however at some point a request was made to develop a systematic way to do handwriting and typewriter analysis. Souder, whose specialty was taking exacting measurements and making precise comparisons, joined the project.

The nine notebooks found in the basement at NIST showed that during his career Souder was requested to lend his expertise to a variety of cases brought to the bureau by the Post Office, the Department of the Treasury, and various other government bodies. In addition to appearing in court as an expert witness, he helped pioneer some techniques still used in modern American Forensics.

He developed a method of projectile analysis in which he used a recent invention, the microscope, to compare expended bullets to see if they were fired from the same weapon. He advised the founder of the FBI’s forensic lab on policy and protocol. When he analyzed handwriting from ransom notes during the Lindbergh case he matched them to Bruno Hauptmann, who was eventually convicted and executed for the crime.

Souder brought the scientific method and statistics to law enforcement, a profession that was more art than science during that early era. The head of the New York Police Department at the time is reported to have said of Souder that he was, “the most outstanding expert [in forensics] on the continent in the last one hundred years.”

Somehow Souder’s work was lost to history, and Souder himself may have had a hand in that. While he actively published his dental work. Souder tended to downplay his work in the field of criminalistics. Some believe Souder feared criminals learning too much from his methods, or seeking him out for retribution. Souder had a wife and daughter, it’s understandable that he would not want his prosecutorial work to follow him home.

When Souder retired none of his contemporaries at NIST continued in the field of forensic research and eventually the agencies link, and Souder’s, to forensics was lost.

What a great story. One of those rare nuggets from history where an unsung hero finally gets the recognition he deserves. Kind of has a Sherlock Holmes vibe to it. And how cool would it have been to have the nickname “Detective X”?

Maybe I need to venture into the historical nonfiction genre for my next project.

John Stamp Author Page

References:
Greenwood, Veronique. “Secret Crime-Fighter Revealed to Be 1930s Physicist,” National Geographic, March 17, 2017. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/20…