DNA analysts scan evidence for genetic markers and identify their person of origin.

Deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA, consists of organic molecules with a distinct hereditary chemical pattern. Everyone has unique DNA markers, which makes DNA analysis one of the most accurate ways to identify people. In the legal system, forensic DNA analysis is used to prove the identity of a victim or perpetrator and their involvement with a crime. Using scientific knowledge and specialized lab techniques, DNA analysts provide incontrovertible evidence that can help solve a case.

Samples, most commonly hair and blood, are collected at the crime scene and brought to the lab, where the DNA is isolated and subject to close inspection. There are a number of methods used for DNA testing in crime labs, among them mitochondrial sequence determination and reverse dot blot analysis. An analyst will identify the DNA's unique markers and attempt to match the new evidence to samples in a database. If a match is found and a person identified, the case can progress. Everything has to be documented in a specific way to be admissible in court. In the past, DNA work could take weeks; though new techniques move faster, it's an exacting process that requires a lot of precision.

DNA analyst work may include...

  • Testing bodily fluids or hairs for evidence
  • Preparing and testing samples
  • Analyzing information and documenting results
  • Matching DNA samples to a database
  • Maintaining lab equipment
  • Testifying in court

Many DNA analysts are employed by law enforcement and work in crime labs, but some find work in private labs that deal only occasionally with the legal system. Whether an analyst works for local police or the federal government, there is a high standard of work that must be upheld.

The minimum educational requirement for becoming a DNA analyst is a bachelor's degree with a focus in a relevant scientific discipline such as genetics or microbiology. Some labs require 2 or more years of full time lab work or graduate coursework, so many prospective DNA analysts will seek out additional training or complete a Master's degree in a field like forensic science or molecular biology.

In any case, lab experience is essential. Though there is overlap in technique, forensic DNA analysis is distinct from clinical work; it may be advantageous to pursue coursework specifically in forensic science. Strong communication skills and some degree of comfort with public speaking are essential as well for the legal side of things. If that sounds like you, grab some alleles and head for the lab; with adequate training, you could be analyzing DNA with the best of them!

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