A few years ago, I worked as a Writing Department Intern for C.S.I. Crime Scene Investigation and C.S.I. New York. Seeing producers, writers and real C.S.I.s collaboratively bring a story from pitch to beatsheat was intoxicating. Research was meticulous. Science served as mascot, foundation and muse.
Despite the show's dedication to rigorous research, its ultimate success had a lot to do with the fact that the creators didn't try to replicate a day in the life of a C.S.I. Team or a forensic DNA lab. The actual C.S.I. Investigators don't go from the crime scene to the lab. The forensic analysis is done by trained lab techs. What would those award-winning "C.S.I. Shots" be without charismatic stars in starch white lab jackets peering through microscopes, though?
A photo of the real and considerably less glamorous Las Vegas C.S.I. Team taped to the refrigerator was one of many many testaments to the team's awareness of the conscious discrepancy between factual and actual. Another was the timing. Turnaround time for DNA analysis is not instantaneous. Enter the episodic Hollywood procedural fiat clause. Two beats later the DNA is verified.
The evening of May 1, 2011, American audiences were riveted to their computers and television screens watching the most expensive criminal investigations in history unfold. As would be expected, scientists, journalists and laypeople are now scrutinizing the verification details with the fundamental question, "How do we know it was Bin Laden?"
Real forensic science labs may not incorporate the Hollywood fiat into their practices. A European Community–funded portable rapid DNA test, developed at University of Arizona Phoenix, however, might.
Professor Frederic Zenhausern at the Center for Applied Nanobioscience and Medicine said that the technology he is developing through the UK Forensic Science Service "is currently under validation by several crime labs in the UK, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands."
Could those dots connect all the way to Pakistan? Not likely.
Zenhausern reiterated that "there is no rapid DNA system available for a portable deployment in such a mission yet." The system his team is developing is the "only one reported to be close to such requirements," however, it is "not validated yet."
Exciting as it may be to speculate, "it is unlikely USG (U.S. Government) used such a system at the site. More likely they transported the samples (and/or body) to a command center" equipped with the "instrumentation and bench space to accommodate the lab equipment."
Whereas a low profile DNA case would be "processed with the conventional lab-bench techniques" that could "take up to 10-14 days," an extraordinary case, such as the most expensive manhunt in history, "could be performed in less than 24 hours" through an integrated system that has a "turnaround time of less than 2 hours."
Zenhausern speculates that "Osama Bin Laden’s DNA analysis may have been performed through cross-validation of processing at different USG labs...possibly located at some strategic and local command centers equipped with conventional and high quality STR (Short Tandem Repeat) profiling platform technologies."
Given the highly orchestrated nature of the operation, surrounding military bases—already prepared with on-site facilities for identifying soldiers—could have been alerted ahead of time, but they still needed to travel there. This explains the gap between the 3:50 pm EST ID confirmation and The White House's 10:30 pm DNA verified announcement.
"In a near future, rapid DNA testing using a single piece of portable equipment will improve the cycle time, mobility and possibly reduce some of the cost of the analysis while providing a much simpler user interface." Zenhausern said, positing that "comparative matches may have been done from previously collected samples from skin, hair, fingerprint or any other object Bin Laden may have been touching (e.g. cup) and/or from samples collected from family members."
It won't be long before the rapid technology being developed will be a legitimate DNA verification process. Right now, however, it's still a Hollywood thing.
Photo credit: picture of Dr. Zenhausern with the machine at his lab in Chandler, Ariz., taken by Keven Siegert, University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix.
Related at Scientific American: How do you ID a dead Osama?
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About the Author: Although Susanna Speier was never able to formally pursue her passion for science, her "ear" for layman-friendly science explanations—deemed "excellent" by The New York Times—has enabled her to enter through the back door on many occasions. She talks to scientists whenever she can. Conversations often turn into collaborations. Five of her plays have been produced; over 100 of her articles have been published and one of her screenplays remains in liminal purgatory. She dayjobs as a multiplatform social media specialist and digital journalist.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.