Helping solve crimes through cutting edge DNA research

February 19, 2013

While TV shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and NCIS make DNA forensic testing look easier than it is in real life, it’s scientists like John Butler who are advancing the use of DNA technology to ensure that everyday reality is much closer to these fictional crime solving stories.

Butler, a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Fellow, is one of the world’s leading experts on DNA analysis, and is responsible for a number of scientific breakthroughs to validate and advance the use of DNA technology.

This includes improving the way scientists now perform forensic DNA analysis on degraded DNA samples — a process that has been used on the human remains from the World Trade Center attacks, DNA samples from fallen soldiers and evidence from criminal cases that are decades old.

Butler currently is focusing on testing the reliability of new technology to speed up the time it takes to do the DNA analysis and refining the testing to make the results more precise.

“The biggest thing happening right now is rapid DNA testing,” said Butler, who leads a team of NIST forensic scientists. “Instead of taking eight hours or more to do a DNA test, we have demonstrated it is possible to do it accurately in less than an hour.”


John Butler of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Another aspect of Butler’s work has involved isolating male Y chromosomes from DNA samples, making it easier for identify those who have committed sexual assaults.

DNA technology is used for a number of purposes, including providing law enforcement authorities with a heightened ability to determine perpetrators of violent crimes such as murder and rape. It also is used to resolve paternity disputes, to identify disaster victims and to assist in solving unidentified missing person cases.

Butler said he sees his scientific work as an important public service because it helps forensic laboratories do their jobs more effectively, and assists the law enforcement and the criminal justice process.

“The decisions from the forensic laboratories are very important,” said Butler. “We are helping solve crimes. The results from these tests can impact life and liberty.”

In addition to his work in the laboratory, Butler has written four books on DNA testing and is now working on a fifth volume. These textbooks provide practitioners and students with all required information to fully understand the technical aspects of DNA testing and the latest legal challenges. One textbook, “Forensic DNA Typing,” is considered to be the Bible by many forensic DNA analysts. It also has been translated into Chinese and Japanese.

John Paul Jones, a NIST colleague, said Butler is a “rock star” and “visionary” among forensic scientists, and has combined cutting edge research with a strong educational component that is has been of great value to the profession.

“His work is helping to educate all up and coming scientists,” said Jones. “He also provides training so that individuals understand the science behind the DNA testing guidelines, and he is a tremendous motivator of his NIST team— a world renown group of scientists.”

Butler has conducted scores of workshops in the U.S. and abroad, training hundreds of forensic biologists on the rigorous DNA techniques. He has spoken in Germany, France, England, Portugal, Cyprus and Australia, and visited laboratories in the U.S. and overseas to assist in improving their processes. In addition, Butler has co-authored guidelines now required by the FBI laboratory and all U.S. crime laboratories for submission to the national forensic DNA database.

Butler has had a longtime interest in forensic science, completing his Ph.D. dissertation research at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia in 1995 and conducting his postdoctoral work at NIST. He spent several years in the private sector performing research in rapid DNA analysis technologies before returning to NIST.

Butler enjoyed his time in the private sector, but said the emphasis was on making money and there were constraints on sharing information outside the company.

At NIST, Butler said, he has wide latitude to experiment, to disseminate his findings, to write, teach and improve the science.

“NIST is a place where I can have an impact and help society,” said Butler.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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