Pollen from snot (not for reading at dinnertime…)

By Anna Sandiford 11/06/2010

A big hand to TechNZ because their funding allowed Auckland-based Dr Anna Sandiford of Forensic Science & Research Ltd and Dr Mark Horrocks of Microfossil Research Ltd to work on a joint research project with some world-class forensic scientists and pathologists at Manlove Forensics in the UK.  The project was to develop a new method of collecting pollen samples from dead bodies.

The new sampling method is now taught by Dr Sandiford to UK crime scene examiners, crime scene managers, police officers and forensic pathologists either as part of structured environmental forensics training courses, on an as-needs basis to specific police forces and/or whilst crime scene examiners are actually at crime scenes (that’s how easy the sample collection is).  It’s hoped that the more police forces use it, the more other forces will want to use it, including New Zealand and Australia.  Because of Dr Sandiford’s and Dr Horrocks’ European and Australasian botanical/pollen knowledge, the cadaver samples can be sent to New Zealand for processing, interpretation and eventual presentation in Court regardless of the originating jurisdiction.

Part of the abstract for Dr Sandiford’s upcoming presentation at the Australia and New Zealand Forensic Science Society 20th international symposium states:

“Pollen has wide application in case work: to provide links between things, places and people; to provide information on circumstances through reconstruction of events; as an investigative approach to suggest provenances of samples of unknown origin.  The value of collecting samples from nasal passages for pollen analysis has been recognized for some time and has been useful in several cases.  However, the current method of sample collection is highly invasive. It also requires significant amounts of equipment to be taken to the mortuary and for the pollen specialist or an associate to set it up and supervise or be involved with sample collection.

To speed up sample collection we have developed a very simple new technique.  Samples can be collected by pathologists or even crime scene examiners (with a small amount of training).  This cuts time and cost and should increase the number of cases in which such samples are collected.  The technique also takes into account other trace material that is routinely collected at post mortems or crime scenes.”

The current method of sampling requires removal of the brain during the postmortem.  The method is time-consuming (an hour or so, not including the delay to allow the pollen expert to attend the crime scene and/or post mortem), labour intensive (requiring at least two people) and expensive.  The new method is far, far quicker (in the order of minutes) and cheaper and samples can now be taken at crime scenes, post mortems – anywhere where a dead body is found.

The new sampling kits are being used by UK police forces and demonstration kits have been circulated to pathologists for their use.  Once a few more sampling kits have been returned then the results will be published in the international scientific press.  Initial results are that the new method is not only quick, cheap and easy to use, the results are comparable with the original method.

It’s a fact of life that even for the most serious of crimes, monetary cost comes into play when deciding how to advance an investigation.  Any advancement that means money can be saved without compromising the scientific results surely has to be a good thing and Dr Sandiford is proud to be developing a method that does just that.