The Future of Forensic Science: An Interview with Athina Vidaki

Athina Vidaki, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands discusses the newest technologies and techniques in forensic science. From sequencing an entire genome from just a few cells, to predicting age and appearance from blood or saliva samples, the future of forensic casework is developing rapidly.







Laura: Hi, we’re here with Athina Vidaki. Athina, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your work here?


Athina: Hi Laura. It’s great to be here. So, I’m a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Erasmus Medical Center in the Netherlands, and I have been specializing there in the last 8 years on forensic genetics. More specifically, on forensic epigenetics.


Laura: Tell us about forensic epigenetics. That’s relatively new. What is that?


Athina: Yeah, so epigenetics is actually one of the most noble markers that has been used in forensics over the last few years. So, epigenetics is quite different than genetics, which is just looking at the sequencing itself. In epigenetics, we look at the chemical modifications of the DNA and how these change over someone’s lifetime, depending on the environment and various lifestyle factors.


Laura: That’s very interesting. How is that used in forensics?


Athina: So, actually the first publication proposing forensic epigenetic biomarkers was in 2011, and this involved it’s use in forensic tissue identification. So, how can we say if a forensic tissue is semen or blood or saliva. But, definitely a very hot topic is the age prediction. So, people have used DNA methylation to see if we can accurately give an estimate about how old somebody is with quite promising results. But, also many more applications, such as discriminating identical twins, which have identical DNA profiles, so we need something different to differentiate them. And, we recently also proposed it’s use for lifestyle prediction, such as smoking status.


Laura: Very interesting. What are some challenges in the lab when you’re doing that?


Athina: So, forensic epigenetics is quite similar with genetics, but also, at the same time, quite different, because DNA methylation is more a quantitive value. So we have a range from 0-100%, whereas for a SNP or STRs, it is much more qualitative, because we look for a repeat number or SNP variation. So, this actually makes our life a bit more difficult in the lab. So, we use various technologies to detect in a targeted way, the biomarkers that we want, but also that makes it harder for statistical evaluation and interpretation, and taking also into account various biological factors that might change our DNA methylation profile.



Laura: Ok, well along those lines, You’re here at ISHI this year to speak on a panel about what the future holds for forensics. So, what do you think the future holds for forensics? Maybe we’ll get a little preview here.


Athina: Yes, it’s a great honor to be part of this panel and to talk about the future. I think the future of forensic DNA analysis is really great, and already we can see that it will be even brighter with the use of new technologies. So, we’ve created a panel to discuss both new biomarkers, such as forensic transcriptomics and the forensic microbiome, so non-human DNA and how this can be used for crime scene investigation, but also new technologies, such as the genetic genealogy, which we had a workshop, and it’s kind of one of the hot topics at the moment. But also, DNA phenotyping. What do we gain by combining genetics and epigenetics, and what can we tell about the person’s appearance and face recognition? I’m very excited. I think the conversations will be really interesting.


Laura: It is very interesting how that’s all coming together now, so all the different pieces can form one profile.


Athina: Yeah, sure, and with the next generation sequencing and the great advantages of massively parallel sequencing (a lot of fragments), we can actually see this coming in the future where we can have a genetic fingerprint where we can see all these things in one go, hopefully.


Laura: Talking about next generation, that’s been progressing somewhat slowly. So, what do you see? How is that going to speed up in the future? Is it going to speed up? What’s the next step there?


Athina: Yeah, it’s very exciting. It’s a technology that’s been used in genetics research quite recently, and looking back at DNA fingerprinting and DNA profiling, this has been growing quite fast. We hope that it’ll go even faster. Yeah, so I think it’s application has already been very promising for various genetic markers, and we already have commercial solutions and other tests that researchers have developed that combine the various predictions of traits in one go. But, also, of course, for improving STR profiling and mixture deconvolution. A lot more sensitive and reproducible DNA profiling.


Laura: Yeah, so interesting to watch. It’s come so far in such a short time really. What do you think is the biggest breakthrough that you’ve seen during your career?

Athina: I think this is quite difficult, but definitely, I think we’re all surprised with how much DNA can really tell us about a person, about a scene, and about a sample. Lately, the genetic genealogy breakthrough is definitely something that can show us how powerful it can be, and how powerful those databases can be, but there’s also how cautious we have to be before we implement things. And, of course, in forensic epigenetics, which is my field, I think the biggest challenge, but also the biggest breakthrough so far is definitely the age prediction. And now, we see that we can quite accurately predict someone’s age with maybe plus or minus three years with blood and saliva stains, and I can see this getting implemented in casework. Probably the first application from this field.


Laura: That’s pretty remarkable. So now, as a scientist, you probably won’t like a question like this, but if you were going to predict, what do you think the next big breakthrough might be?


Athina: I see breakthroughs as kind of two ways. So, one, we have the science and the biology behind it. I think, there, we definitely have great advances in fields like face recognition or epigenetic applications. But, definitely the technological advances are going to be the ones that wow us. We already see that we can do full genome sequencing from single cells, and I wonder how this can affect the future, and maybe with just one or two cells, we can tell so much more, that, at the moment we are still not as sensitive to do so. I think, technology is something that we have to keep up, and computers and artificial intelligence, so I can see that’s coming really quickly.


Laura: I’m excited to see what does come next.


Athina: Yeah, me too.


Laura: What’s next for you?


Athina: Yeah, so, I am already at Rotterdam Erasmus University for almost four years for my postdoctoral research. I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s a very challenging and kind of stimulating environment, so I hope I can continue producing innovative research and kind of innovative forensic genetics and DNA profiling, and of course, yeah, I’m very excited to be here to see if we can get more collaborations and other people on board.

Laura: That sounds great. Have you been to ISHI before?


Athina: No, actually, this is my first time at ISHI. I’m very grateful that I’m on the 30th anniversary as well. First time in California, so I think I will really enjoy myself and I can’t wait to meet more US colleagues and talk about the future, and science, and what do we need to do to make all these great tools kind of forensically applicable.


Laura: I think you’ll really enjoy this symposium. Is there anything in particular that you’re looking forward to most?


Athina: I think the discussions more. I’m very interested to network and talk to people more, particularly in my field. Epigenetics, I feel is something that is not fully explored here, so I would really be interested to talk to people about this and feel how their view is on the topic.


Laura: It’s a really great community.


Athina: Yes, I’m very excited. And the party, of course.


Laura: Anything else about your work that we didn’t cover that you want to talk about?


Athina: I think that we will have the chance to discuss some more during the panel, so I am very excited to be a part of this Horizon 2020 program called VISAGE, which aims to build new tools based on massively parallel sequencing for the prediction of age, appearance, and ancestry, and I think this is very exciting. I’m very grateful to be here and share this with the community.


Laura: Well we’re so happy you’re here. Thank you so much for talking to us.