Pollen forensics could help track down criminals

ATLANTA — It's springtime in north Georgia and pollen is everywhere. Even when the initial spring burst of pollen fades, there's usually at least some trace of pollen around most of the year.

Dr. Berry Brosi, an environmental sciences professor at Emory University, said that's what makes it a great way to track the movements of people and things.

"It gets on our clothes, it gets in our hair, it gets on our skin, it gets inside our laptops," Brosi said. And even though you can wash it away, "there will still be some traces that are left that are very much intact."


And that could possibly help bring criminals to justice. Traces of pollen, specific to a particular location at a particular time of year -- such as pine or dogwood pollen -- can go along for the ride away from a crime scene.

"So right now as we're talking, we're covered in pollen. This is really leaving these kinds of indelible traces that are really hard to get rid of completely," Borsi said.

Pollen was successfully used to identify that mass graves -- from the war in Bosnia in the 1990s -- had been moved from their original location.

"Bodies were moved from where they were executed to another site in order to potentially cover up who some of the perpetrators were," Borsi said.

In the United States, the process has been used in a limited fashion so far because of the painstakingly slow process of identifying pollen visually under a microscope, said Channel 2's Severe Weather Team 2 Meteorologist Brian Monahan.

Borsi's group at Emory is trying to speed things up by identifying pollen using its DNA.

"We can basically take pollen, extract DNA from it, sequence it and look at the profile and say 'this sequence belong to pines, or dogwoods, or whatever it is,'" Borsi said.

If pollen from a crime scene connects to a suspect, that's all that could be needed to close the case.

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