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Crime-Fighting Kitties: Cat Hair Could Be the Next Forensic Tool

DiscoblogBy Smriti RaoMarch 22, 2010 8:19 PM


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You may think of your furry feline friend simply as a companion, but look closely and you will find that your whiskered pal also the ability to be a crime-fighting supercat. An team of scientists has found that fur shed by cats can serve as forensic evidence, thanks to the DNA it contains. In fact, a man was recently convicted of second-degree murder in Canada after fur found on his discarded jacket matched that of Snowball--the victim's cat. The telltale fur led to a 15-year prison sentence. Scientists say that it may soon become commonplace to use the genetic material in fur shed by cats to link perpetrators, accomplices, witnesses, and victims. As the researchers wrote in the journal

Forensic Science International: Genetics:

"Cats are fastidious groomers, and shed fur can have sufficient genetic material for trace forensic studies, allowing potential analysis of both standard short tandem repeat (STR) and mitochondrial DNA regions."

Veterinary scientist Robert Grahn and his team have already amassed a feline DNA database containing samples drawn from 25 distinct worldwide cat populations and 26 breeds. The resultant database of 1,394 cat DNA sequences gives scientists a baseline understanding of the overall genetic diversity of cats, so they can determine where to look for unique identifiers in the cat genome, and figure out how definative a match is. The new database focuses on mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is genetic material inherited from one's mother. Grahn explained to Discovery News

that aside from mtDNA, nuclear DNA--which is even better for identifying individuals--can also be found on those cat hairs that still retain their root bulbs or on skin particles that might stick to the oily fur when cats groom themselves.

These natural oils, along with static electricity and the sheer volume of fur, mean that people who enter a property with a resident cat are like fur magnets. It is almost impossible to avoid having one or more cat furs cling to skin, clothing, shoes, bags and more.

A forensic test using the STR technique, which looks at particular markers in the cat genome, has already has been developed by forensic geneticist John Butler

. Called the "Meowplex," that test can be used in conjunction with this new mtDNA database to help cats throws crooks behind bars. For now, it’s the cats’ DNA database that is being built, but your doggy need not feel left out of this episode of "Paw and Order." Scientists hope to add canine and other animal DNA into this mix later. Related Content: DISCOVER: Ancient Egyptians Loved Their Dead Animals

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