What is Forensic Serology? Its History, Scientist and Significance in Crime Investigation.

Forensic Serology is a branch of forensic science that falls under forensic biology. It applies scientific principles of serology to analyze, examine, iden

FORENSIC SCIENCEFORENSIC SEROLOGY

Shubham Kumar

1/29/202412 min read

This informative blog includes the information required to understand the “Forensic Serology, providing prior details of its definition, history, significance, contribution of scientists, role of a forensic serologist and its limitation.”. Please read it with patience.

Definition

Serology refers to the scientific study of bodily fluids, especially the study of blood serum for the detection of antibodies and antigens in it. Forensic Serology is a branch of forensic science that falls under forensic biology. It applies scientific principles of serology to analyze, examine, identify, and individualize evidence related to bodily fluids (such as blood, saliva, sweat, urine, vomit, etc.) found at crime scenes or related to the crime scene to seek justice in legal courts.

Forensic serology plays a crucial role in criminal investigations and legal cases by using biology. Furthermore, the study of bodily fluids like blood, semen, and saliva to connect suspects to crime scenes, identify victims, and provide vital evidence in court.

Serology acts as a detective, examining unique "fingerprints" in bodily fluids left at crime scenes. These fluids contain specific proteins and molecules that reveal important information about the individuals involved in the crime.

History of Forensic Serology

History is the base and foundation of any understanding, let's indulge into the history and how the forensic developed time to time.

Late 1800s
  • In 1875, German immunologist and pathologist Paul Ehrlich coined the concept of antibodies, which contribute in further fields like biology, toxicology, drug analysis and serology also, this concept holds the prominent ground in forming the foundation of our body innate response towards foreign substances.

  • In 1888, Dr. Thomas Taylor, a physician, describe a method of investigation of blood in crime scene investigation and the advantages of blood investigation in crime cases, this research was published in his paper as well.

Early 1900s
  • In 1901, Austrian immunologist Karl Landsteiner discovered the ABO blood group system and classified human blood into types A, B, AB, and O. This discovery was marked as providing the crime scene investigators an edge over the criminals, as this system made it possible to recognize the blood group from the blood evidence and also individualize the blood evidence present in the crime scene.

  • In 1902, Paul Uhlenhuth, a German physician and bacteriologist, introduced the Precipitin Test, which enabled the differentiation of human blood from animal blood. This was a significant breakthrough in determining the source of bloodstains found at crime scenes.

Mid 1920s
  • In the 1920s, Swedish forensic scientist Erik Essen-Möller made important contributions by introducing the concept of secretor status. He discovered that some individuals secrete their blood group antigens into bodily fluids like saliva, semen, and other body fluids. This finding allowed for the identification of individuals through their bodily fluids, even when blood itself was not present.

Between 1930s - 1940s
  • In the 1930s, advancements were made in the serological examination of bloodstains, enabling the identification of human blood even in degraded or minute samples.

  • In 1940, Australian biochemist L. Brickwedde and H. Alderman discovered the Rh blood group system, complementing the ABO system and further enhancing the capabilities of blood typing in forensic cases.

Between 1950s - 1960s
  • In the 1950s, scientists developed the absorption-elution technique, which allowed the recovery of dried blood samples for serological analysis. This method enabled investigators to work with older or degraded blood evidence.

  • In the 1960s, researchers discovered that other bodily fluids, such as saliva and semen, also contained blood group antigens, expanding the range of bodily fluids that could be analyzed in forensic cases.

Between 1970s - 1980s
  • The introduction of immunological techniques, such as the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), in the 1970s, significantly improved the accuracy and sensitivity of serological tests.

  • In the 1980s, forensic serology witnessed a transformative shift with the advent of DNA technology. The development of DNA profiling techniques, especially polymerase chain reaction (PCR), allowed for the individualization of genetic material, revolutionizing forensic investigations.

From 1990s to Present
  • Since the 1990s, DNA analysis has become the gold standard in forensic investigations. Forensic serology has evolved to encompass DNA profiling, allowing for the identification of suspects, linking them to crime scenes, and providing vital evidence in legal proceedings.

  • The integration of DNA databases and technological advancements in DNA sequencing have further enhanced the capabilities of forensic serology in solving complex criminal cases.

Scientist which has a prime contribution in development of field of Forensic Serology

The current development is possible without some of these scientists listed below.

Karl Landsteiner (1868-1943)
  • Contribution: Karl Landsteiner is often regarded as the father of blood group serology. In 1901, he discovered the ABO blood group system, classifying blood types into A, B, AB, and O. His groundbreaking work laid the foundation for blood typing in forensic investigations, helping to identify the blood type of individuals involved in criminal cases.

Paul Uhlenhuth (1870-1957)
  • Contribution: In 1901, Paul Uhlenhuth developed the Precipitin Test, also known as the Uhlenhuth Test. This test allowed for the differentiation of human blood from animal blood, which was crucial in identifying the source of bloodstains at crime scenes.

Leone Lattes (1887-1954)
  • Contribution: Leone Lattes, an Italian forensic scientist, was the first to develop the ABO blood grouping method for dried bloodstains in 1915. This breakthrough enabled investigators to determine the blood type of suspects or victims even when only dried bloodstains were available as evidence.

William H. Nichols (1904-1998)
  • Contribution: William H. Nichols, an American biochemist, made significant contributions to Forensic Serology by developing the gel diffusion technique in the 1930s. This method allowed for the identification of blood groups in a more efficient and reliable manner.

Erik Essen-Möller (1890-1968)
  • Contribution: Erik Essen-Möller, a Swedish forensic scientist, introduced the concept of secretor status in the 1920s.

  • He discovered that some individuals secrete their blood group antigens into bodily fluids like saliva and semen. This finding was crucial in identifying individuals through their bodily fluids, even if blood itself was not present at the crime scene.

Paul Kirk (1902-1970)
  • Contribution: Paul Kirk, an American biochemist, contributed to the advancement of Forensic Serology in the mid-20th century. He worked on improving the forensic analysis of bloodstains and developed new techniques for blood and body fluid identification.

Alec Jeffreys (1950-present)
  • Contribution: Alec Jeffreys, a British geneticist, revolutionized forensic science with the invention of DNA fingerprinting in the mid-1980s. His discovery allowed for the individualization of genetic material, making DNA analysis an invaluable tool in forensic investigations.

Mary-Claire King (1946-present)
  • Contribution: Mary-Claire King, an American geneticist, conducted groundbreaking research in the field of DNA analysis.

  • She contributed to the development of DNA sequencing techniques and advocated for the use of DNA testing in criminal investigations.

Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld
  • Contribution: Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, American lawyers and co-founders of The Innocence Project, have been instrumental in using DNA evidence to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals.

  • Their work has highlighted the importance of accurate forensic serology and DNA analysis in the pursuit of justice.

Significance of Forensic Serology in crime scene investigation

Forensic serology encompasses wide variety of significance, which are listed below.

Linking Crime Scenes and Suspects
  • Forensic Serology plays a crucial role in linking suspects to multiple crime scenes. By analyzing bodily fluids found at different crime scenes, investigators can establish a connection between seemingly unrelated incidents.

  • For instance, the presence of the same DNA profile in bloodstains from different crime scenes can provide strong evidence that the same perpetrator was involved in all the cases.

  • This helps law enforcement agencies build a comprehensive picture of the suspect's criminal activity and increases the likelihood of successful prosecution.

Exonerating the Innocent
  • Forensic Serology, particularly DNA analysis, has been instrumental in exonerating individuals who have been wrongfully convicted.

  • DNA evidence has the power to conclusively prove the innocence of a wrongly accused person by excluding them as a contributor to the biological evidence collected at the crime scene.

  • The ability to exonerate the innocent is a significant contribution of forensic serology to the pursuit of justice and the prevention of miscarriages of justice.

Cold Case Resolution
  • Advancements in forensic serology, especially in DNA technology, have breathed new life into cold cases (unsolved cases with no active investigation).

  • By reexamining biological evidence using modern techniques, forensic serologists can identify suspects who were not previously considered or even known.

  • Solving cold cases not only brings closure to victims' families but also serves as a deterrent to potential offenders, knowing that justice may eventually catch up to them.

Victim Identification in Mass Disasters
  • In cases of mass disasters, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks, forensic serology plays a critical role in victim identification.

  • The analysis of bodily fluids, especially DNA profiling, helps in the identification of deceased individuals when traditional identification methods are not feasible.

  • By comparing DNA profiles from bodily fluids with DNA samples from family members, forensic experts can establish positive identifications, facilitating the process of notifying and providing closure to grieving families.

Wildlife Crime Investigation
  • Forensic serology is not limited to human-related crimes. It also finds applications in wildlife crime investigations.

  • By analyzing blood and other bodily fluids from poached animals or illegal animal products.

  • Forensic serologists can help identify the species, trace the origin of the illegal material, and aid in the prosecution of wildlife traffickers and poachers.

  • This aspect of forensic serology contributes to conservation efforts and protection of endangered species.

Identification of Suspects and Victims
  • Bodily fluids left at crime scenes often contain genetic material, which serves as a powerful tool for forensic serologists to identify suspects and victims through DNA analysis.

  • Blood, saliva, semen, and other biological materials collected from crime scenes can be analyzed to generate DNA profiles. By comparing these profiles with databases or known individuals, forensic serologists can narrow down their search and connect potential suspects to the crime.

  • Moreover, identifying victims through bodily fluids is of paramount importance in cases where victims' identities are unknown. By analyzing blood or other fluids found at crime scenes or related locations, forensic serologists can provide crucial information to law enforcement agencies, aiding in the identification of deceased individuals.

Individualization of Evidence
  • Forensic serology plays a pivotal role in individualizing evidence, particularly in cases where bodily fluids are the primary sources of evidence.

  • Each person's bodily fluids contain unique proteins and genetic markers that act as personal signatures. These markers can be analyzed through immunological techniques and DNA profiling. By comparing the markers found in the evidence to known individuals, forensic serologists can link a specific person to the crime scene or victim, providing compelling evidence in court.

  • The individualization of evidence can be crucial in cases where multiple suspects are present, as it helps differentiate their contributions to the evidence left at the crime scene. Furthermore, the ability to tie a suspect to the scene through their unique bodily fluid markers strengthens the prosecution's case and aids in securing convictions.

Determining Manner and Time of Death
  • In cases of suspicious deaths, forensic serology is instrumental in determining the manner and time of death. By analyzing bodily fluids and bloodstains, forensic experts can gain insights into the circumstances surrounding the crime.

  • For example, the presence of certain bodily fluids or bloodstains may indicate the use of specific weapons or the occurrence of a struggle during the crime.

  • The patterns and distribution of bloodstains can provide valuable information about the sequence of events, aiding in establishing a timeline of events leading up to the death.

Unraveling Criminal Activity
  • Different types of bodily fluids can reveal specific information about the nature of the crime, shedding light on the modus operandi of the perpetrator.

  • For instance, the presence of blood and semen in sexual assault cases can serve as crucial evidence against the perpetrator, linking them directly to the crime.

  • Similarly, the presence of saliva on a crime tool might help link a suspect to a burglary by providing biological evidence left behind during the commission of the crime.

  • In addition to linking suspects to specific crimes, forensic serology can help investigators understand the dynamics of the crime and provide insights into the behavior and motives of the offender.

  • Such information can be pivotal in building a comprehensive understanding of the case and guiding further investigations.

Role of Forensic Serologist

The role of Forensic Serologist is very crucial in crime scene investigation, involving crimes like assault, sexual offences, murder, theft etc. The roles are listed below.

Evidence Collection and Preservation
  • When called to a crime scene, forensic serologists are responsible for identifying and collecting potential bodily fluid evidence. They meticulously search for bloodstains, semen, saliva, and other biological material, ensuring that each sample is carefully handled, labeled, and packaged to maintain its integrity.

  • The preservation of evidence is paramount to prevent contamination and ensure that the samples stand up to scrutiny in court.

  • Forensic serologists work closely with other crime scene investigators to document the location and nature of each fluid sample, maintaining a chain of custody to track its movement from the crime scene to the laboratory.

Laboratory Analysis
  • Once the evidence is collected, forensic serologists perform a range of laboratory tests to analyze the bodily fluids. These tests involve various techniques, such as immunological assays and DNA analysis, to determine the presence of specific proteins, enzymes, and genetic markers. For instance, blood samples are tested for ABO blood group antigens, Rh factor, and other genetic markers, while semen and saliva traces are examined for specific enzymes and proteins that help identify their origin.

Determining the Origin of Bodily Fluids
  • The primary goal of forensic serology is to determine the origin of the bodily fluids found at the crime scene. By analyzing the composition of the fluid and identifying specific markers, forensic serologists can differentiate human from non-human fluids and, in some cases, narrow down the possible source to an individual. For example, DNA profiling of semen samples can be used to link a suspect to a sexual assault, while bloodstains with unique genetic markers can provide evidence linking a suspect to the crime scene.

Individualization of Evidence
  • In cases where DNA profiling yields a match, forensic serologists play a critical role in individualizing the evidence. Each person's bodily fluids contain unique genetic markers, similar to a fingerprint, making it possible to identify a specific individual as the source of the fluid. This individualization is significant in eliminating innocent suspects and building a strong case against the perpetrator.

Expert Testimony
  • Forensic serologists are often required to provide expert testimony in court. They present their findings, the methods used in analysis, and the significance of the results. Their testimony helps the judge and jury understand the importance of the evidence and its relevance to the case. The credibility and expertise of forensic serologists can heavily influence the outcome of a trial, making their role in crime scene investigation pivotal in ensuring justice is served.

Cold Case Reviews
  • Forensic serologists also contribute to cold case reviews, reexamining evidence from unsolved cases using advanced techniques not available at the time of the crime. With the advancements in DNA technology and improved analytical methods, forensic serologists can potentially uncover new leads and reevaluate previously inconclusive evidence, offering renewed hope of solving long-standing mysteries.

Limitations of Forensic Serology

Since every coin has two side, forensic serology has its limitations too, they are listed below

Timing of Fluid Deposition
  • Forensic serology can determine the presence of bodily fluids at a crime scene and even provide DNA profiles from those fluids. However, it cannot accurately determine the exact timing of when the fluids were deposited. Knowing the timing of fluid deposition can be crucial in establishing the sequence of events during the crime. For example, in cases of sexual assault, it may be essential to determine whether bodily fluids were deposited before, during, or after an alleged assault. Forensic serology alone cannot provide this level of temporal precision.

Identification of Specific Individuals
  • While forensic serology can individualize evidence to a certain extent by linking DNA profiles to known individuals, it cannot identify specific individuals outright. DNA profiles can only be matched to individuals whose DNA is already present in the databases or whose samples have been collected previously. In cases where the perpetrator's DNA is not in the database, the individualization potential of forensic serology is limited.

Degraded or Contaminated Samples
  • Forensic serology relies on the availability of intact and uncontaminated bodily fluid samples. In some cases, environmental factors or improper handling of evidence can lead to the degradation of DNA and proteins in the bodily fluids, making analysis more challenging or even impossible. Additionally, the presence of multiple DNA sources due to cross-contamination or the mingling of different bodily fluids can complicate the interpretation of results.

Interpretation and Bias
  • The interpretation of serological and DNA results is a complex process that requires expert analysis. However, subjective factors and personal biases may inadvertently influence the interpretation, potentially leading to erroneous conclusions. Therefore, maintaining strict protocols and ensuring objectivity is essential to avoid misinterpretation of results.

Limited Probative Value
  • In certain cases, the probative value of serological evidence may be limited, especially when multiple individuals have had access to a crime scene. For instance, finding a bloodstain at a crime scene does not necessarily prove the involvement of the person to whom the blood belongs. There could be innocent explanations for the presence of bodily fluids at a location unrelated to the crime.

Limited Preservation of Biological Evidence
  • Bodily fluids collected at crime scenes can degrade over time due to environmental conditions or improper storage. The degradation of DNA and proteins can reduce the chances of obtaining viable DNA profiles or accurate serological results. To maintain the integrity of biological evidence, proper collection, handling, and storage protocols are essential.

This blog contains valuable insights as per the requirements of skills by Forensic Science Laboratories, we aim to provide a collective and informative knowledge to other viewers so that they can understand the Forensic Serology, its definition, history, significance, contribution of scientists, role of a forensic serologist and its limitation.

Reference

  • "Forensic DNA Typing" by John M. Butler

  • "The Forensic Casebook: The Science of Crime Scene Investigation" by Ngaire E. Genge

  • "Forensic Science: A Very Short Introduction" by Jim Fraser

  • "Practical Crime Scene Processing and Investigation" by Ross M. Gardner