Monthly Archives: August 2010

Hand-Held Sniffer and Body Location

So you’re bad guy has buried his victim somewhere on his vast farm. Your sleuth knows this but can’t prove it. Locating the corpse is critical to making the case. Search teams and cadaver dogs are brought in but the days drag by with no results.

Electronic noses were developed for this very circumstance. These devices are basically gas chromatographs. They sample air near the grave where the molecules of decomposition percolate up from the decaying corpse. Thomas Bruno, a physicist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recently reported in New Scientist the development of a handheld sniffer device, which should allow investigators to more quickly cover large areas, allowing for more timely corpse location.

I earlier posted a note about microfluidics. This device incorporates some of that technology. The device contains a very thin capillary tube whose inner surface is coated with aluminum oxide. Air is then sucked into the tube. If this air contains any of the various amines produced by decomposition, these molecules will combine with the aluminum oxide. This new amine-aluminum oxide combination can be detected using UV light.

This device is still in the developmental stage but could prove to be a very useful tool for corpse location.


Hitler’s DNA: Delicious Irony?

Sometimes a story catches your eye because it is filled with so much irony it can’t be ignored. Everyone knows who Adolph Hitler was. Everyone knows what he did. You’ve no doubt read about his master race and his search for the perfect and pure Aryan. He unleashed such monsters as Joseph Mengele, Auschwitz’s Angel of Death, who performed horrific experiments in his quest for this mythical Master Race.

Now evidence has surfaced that perhaps Hitler was not as Aryan as he had world believe. DNA samples obtained from 39 relatives of Hitler showed some surprising results. A rare chromosome known as Haplogroup E1b1b1 was found among his relatives, and presumably would be found in Hitler’s own DNA if it were available. Why is this important? This particular chromosome is very rare in Western Europe and is typically found in the Berbers of Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria as well as among Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews.

Does this mean that Hitler is actually the son of Jews and of Africa? Not necessarily since this is not absolute proof but you have to admit it would be a very delicious irony if this were the case.


Posted by on August 25, 2010 in DNA


Katherine Ramsland reviews MY SECRET LIFE by Jack the Ripper

In a Dublin bookstore a month ago, I spotted a book about Jack the Ripper that suggested yet another new suspect. I couldn’t resist. Every year, it seems, we get a chance to reconsider the case from a different angle. Yet despite the claims of certain authors (with the emphasis on certain), I doubt we’ll ever achieve a definitive resolution to this vexing mystery. At a 2008 conference for die-hard Ripperologists, eminent British historian Martin Fido summed it up: “When the Day of Judgment comes, and Jack the Ripper is asked to come forward and make an account, everyone else will be holding their breath, waiting, wondering, ‘Who is he?’”

I agree, but far be it from me to thwart others who think this long-standing case will one day be solved. With this in mind, I’ll examine this scintillating new theory (spoiler warning): that Red Jack was in fact a nineteenth-century pornographer who penned an immense amount of bawdy material under a pseudonym. Identify the author and you’ll know who the Ripper was.

Jack the Ripper’s Secret Confession, by documentary director David Monaghan and author Nigel Cawthorne (Constable & Robinson, 2010), offers this premise: “Walter,” the author of My Secret Life: The Sex Diary of a Victorian Gentleman, dropped hints throughout about his criminal activities. While the publication date of this eleven-volume sexual memoir is uncertain, the authors claim it was 1888, the same year as the Ripper’s spree. Monaghan states that after he’d seen a victim’s pain while filming a documentary, he reread Walter’s writings from a more victim-centric perspective and noted its similar lack of empathy to the 1894 confession of H. H. Holmes. Then he spotted Walter’s description of a corpse in the Thames and sensed a veiled admission. He was certain that if Scotland Yard had read Walter’s suggestive ramblings they’d have considered him a good Ripper candidate.

Reading only the abridgement, which Grove Press published in two volumes in 1966, one might never see a connection with the Whitechapel murders, but allegedly within the unpublished material locked up in the British Library, the clues were there all along for the astute literary detective. My Secret Life is a sexual autobiography of extreme cruelty, criminality, and depravity. Now available on the Internet, it’s also a record of the shadows of Victorian Society and evidence of Walter’s acquaintance with the type of women who fatally crossed paths with the Ripper. The authors seem to think that Walter penned his confession in erotic code so he could brag about his bloody acts without being tossed in the slammer. That may be so, but it’s not easy to prove.

For the roguish Walter, it all began with a bit of clandestine peeping. Soon, he found cronies in corruption and his sexual addictions acquired sophistication. He became a stalker, debaucher, con artist, rapist, pedophile, predator, sadist, and, perhaps, a killer. For him, women were mere objects for his pleasure – a theme common to gynocidal serial killers. Supposedly, he had a powerful motive: in order to publish his racy memoir anonymously, he had to murder the witnesses (older whores) who’d procured children for his sexual appetites. Such women were plentiful in the streets, so he would view killing one as no real loss. (In this, he would have been like H. H. Holmes, who kept firing construction workers to avoid paying them and to prevent them from seeing how his hotel was actually a torture chamber.)

Monaghan and Cawthorne use a bit of psychology to reveal the suppressed anger in Walter’s descriptions. In fact, like Bundy and others who claimed that an “entity” compelled them, Walter did describe his inner imp. Even so, that’s hardly evidence of a killer instinct. But there’s more. The authors are also suspicious of the fact that Walter never mentions the Ripper, despite mingling with prostitutes during this period of terror – as if he doesn’t want to raise any suspicion about himself. In addition, for his voyeuristic activities he used a long, thin knife to bore holes into walls — the same type of instrument used on some of the Ripper’s victims.

Thus, by weaving together what detectives describe as a totality of circumstances, Monaghan and Cawthorne make their case. It’s not without holes, but for argument’s sake, if Walter is Jack, we need only unmask the anonymous pornographer. However, this task proves as daunting as linking any other suspect to Jack. The authors offer a list of possibilities, much like one would expect in a Ripperology text, but that’s not quite the same as revealing – at last!– the Ripper’s identity.  We don’t learn who Walter was (and it’s not Walter Sickert, for those of you who know the long-running debates), so in the end, the premise doesn’t produce on its promise. Despite specific suggestions, there remain numerous loose ends.

Many serious Ripperologists with their own favored candidates will dismiss this book and perhaps even trash it, but there’s no reason not to indulge the hypothesis. I’ve seen others with even less credibility gather adherents. So, let’s add Walter the pornographer to the list of Ripper candidates. There will probably be another one next year.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., holds graduate degrees in forensic psychology, clinical psychology, and philosophy. Currently, she chairs the Social Sciences Department and teaches forensic psychology and criminal justice at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. She has published over 900 articles and thirty-seven books, including The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds, True Stories of CSI, Beating the Devil’s Game: A History of Forensic Science and Criminal Investigation, The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation, The CSI Effect, Inside the Minds of Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Healthcare Serial Killers, Inside the Minds of Sexual Predators, and Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers. She has been published in ten languages. Her background in forensic studies positioned her to assist former FBI profiler John Douglas on his book, The Cases that Haunt Us, to co-write a book with former FBI profiler, Gregg McCrary, The Unknown Darkness, and to collaborate on A Voice for the Dead with attorney James E. Starrs on his exhumation projects and on a forensic textbook with renowned criminalist Henry C. Lee, The Real World of a Forensic Scientist. She also published The Forensic Science of CSI, The Criminal Mind: A Writer’s Guide to Forensic Psychology, and The Science of Cold Case Files, and has written numerous editorials on breaking forensic cases for The Philadelphia Inquirer. For seven years, she contributed regularly to Court TV’s Crime Library, and now writes a column on historic forensics for The Forensic Examiner, offers cases analysis for the media and speaks internationally about forensic psychology, forensic science, and serial murder. She has appeared on numerous cable network documentaries, as well as such programs as The Today Show, 20/20, Montel Williams, NPR, Larry King Live and E! True Hollywood.

Katherine’s Website


Q&A: What is the fatal dose of Chloral Hydrate and was it detectable in the 1920’s?

Q: What is the fatal dose of chloral hydrate? Could it be detected in the body in the 1920s?

Carola Dunn, Author of the Daisy Dalrymple mysteries

A: Chloral hydrate was first discovered in 1832 and by mid-to-late 19th century was commonly used as a sedative and when mixed with alcohol as the classic Mickey Finn. It is a relatively safe drug unless mixed with alcohol, which is true of most sedatives and narcotics.

When a drug is evaluated for its lethal potential the term used is the LD50–this means the Lethal Dose 50% or the amount that would kill 50% of the people who took it. For chloral hydrate in humans this is still not well known but it appears to be somewhere between 300 and 500 mg per kilogram of weight. A 150 pound person weighs approximately 70 kgs and so the lethal dose for someone of this size would be between 21,000 and 35,000 mgs or 21 and 35 grams.

Chloral hydrate syrup, which is used as a children’s sedative, contains approximately 500 mg per teaspoon. So you can see that to kill an average size adult would require 40 teaspoons or more of the drug. This is if it is given alone. If you add alcohol to the mixture, everything changes. I could find no data on how lethal this combination is as far as the LD50 is concerned but if your victim was intoxicated and then chloral hydrate was given perhaps only five or 10 teaspoons mixed in some drink or food would work. It’s all very unpredictable so I would simply add some to an alcoholic beverage, have your victim drink two or three of them, become lethargic and sleepy, laps into a coma, stop breathing, and die. The reader will believe that whatever was given it was enough, so don’t sweat the math.

A method for testing for chloral hydrate, as well as chloroform, was first reported in 1923 by JH Ross who worked for Forest Products Laboratories in Montréal, Canada. The test was colorimetric in that an endpoint color represented the presence of the chemical tested for. Here the substance suspected of containing chloral hydrate was mixed with either aqueous sodium or potassium hydroxide and then pyridine. This was then heated and the formation of a deep red color would indicate the presence of chloral hydrate or chloroform–and a few other compounds.

Since this test was new and not widely available it might or might not have been useful in the time and location of your story. When something like this is discovered it’s usually several years before it gets out to the general public so your sleuth, toxicologist, or coroner might know nothing of it. Or they could be very cutting-edge and know about the test. It could go your way so use it as you need for your story. If he did know, he would probably test blood, urine, and stomach contents for the presence of chloral hydrate and, if present, make a best guess as to whether this was an incidental finding (maybe the person used to for sleep and therefore be expected to have it in his system) or was the cause of death. These are all judgment calls and even today are not black-and-white.


Posted by on August 19, 2010 in Forensic History, Poisons & Drugs, Q&A


Microfluidics and Rapid DNA Analysis

A recent report from a research group in Birmingham, England and the Center for Applied NanoBioscience and Medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine presented a new rapid method for DNA analysis. The researchers state that with a new DNA processing cartridge that they have developed, DNA results can be obtained in as little as four hours. This could be extremely useful to law enforcement though it does have a few drawbacks. After obtaining the analysis I would assume that it would then be uploaded into the CODIS system for comparison. The problem is that CODIS is not complete and is not used by all jurisdictions. That is changing, slowly, very slowly, but it is changing.

What intrigued me most about this new technique is that it used microfluidics as its basis. What the heck is that? It is essentially a method of analysis that uses very small amounts of fluid to perform various test in many disciplines, including chemistry, physics, engineering, and of course biotechnology. It is also used by NASA in many of its space probes.

While I was doing research for my book STRESS FRACTURE, I was lucky enough to get a private tour of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, my hometown. In all the years I lived there, besides going out and playing Little League baseball on the base or visiting the officers club with my father, I had never toured the facility. I knew what went on there and followed it very closely. I went to high school with the children of all the missile scientists. I remember well the ground shaking, much like the earthquakes here in California, every time von Braun tested another rocket booster.

Some of what I saw on the tour made its way into the book, particularly the work of Dr. David Hathaway and his VISAR system for video image enhancement. In fact he appears as a character in the book under another name. But one of the most fascinating individuals I met was Dr. Lisa Monaco. She works with microfluidics in a program called LOCAD or Lab-on-a-chip.

I remember her handing me a piece of translucent plastic about the size of a graham cracker. She said that there were 100,000 microfluidic channels in that chip, making it capable of doing 100,000 different experiments. The biochemistry is complex and much of what they use incorporates the blood proteins from horseshoe crabs, which are extremely primitive creatures and have a highly reactive immune system. This LOCAD device can seek out chemicals such as oxygen and water and amino acids, the things necessary for life as we know it.

These LOCAD chips are currently on the ISS (International Space Station) as well as the surface of Mars. And now they have entered the forensic lab.

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Posted by on August 16, 2010 in DNA, High Tech Forensics, Space Program


Q&A: How Would a Gunshot Wound to the Spine Be Treated and Rehabilitated?

Q: In my novel, the main character is a homicide detective who is shot in the back. The bullet lodges between her T11 and T12 vertebrae, cutting into her spinal cord and leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. What would be a reason for the doctors to remove the bullet immediately and how long would she be in the hospital before rehabilitation was started? Also, what type of rehabilitation would she face, how long would it be before she could return home and what type of job opportunities would the police department offer her?

DCooper, Sewell NJ

A: Surgery would be done to control any bleeding and to attempt to salvage as much spinal function as possible. With this type of injury there would be direct damage to the spinal cord by the bullet and indirect damage from the fractured vertebrae in the area and from pressure as blood accumulated in what we call a hematoma. This is simply a mass of blood and it can apply pressure to the cord and make things initially look worse than they are. The surgeon would remove the bullet—if possible. He might or might not since removing it could cause more injury than leaving it in place. Usually though it is removed. He would remove any hematoma that had collected, control any bleeding, and repair the damaged vertebrae if possible. The surgery would probably be done by a neurosurgeon and an orthopedic surgeon, working together.

Recovery is extremely variable and depends upon the exact nature of the injury, the effectiveness of the surgery, the person it happens to, and luck. So you can have it go almost anyway you want. Full recovery is possible, full paraplegia (paralysis below the waist) is possible, and anywhere in between. Rehab is usually begun in the hospital a few days after surgery and continued after discharge. She might be in an ICU for 3 or 4 days, a regular hospital surgical bed for a week (here is where rehab would begin with simple range of motion exercises as possible and passive movement of the limbs, etc), and then she would be transferred to an in-hospital rehab unit for a few weeks. This is all very general and depends upon what’s happening with the victim and the level of sophistication of the hospital.

If she indeed suffered permanent paralysis, she could perform any type of desk job such as dispatcher, records custodian, that kind of thing. She could also begin a new career in the crime lab. Many crime lab techs are previous police officers who then train on the job in such things as fingerprints, firearms, etc.


Posted by on August 13, 2010 in Medical Issues, Q&A, Trauma


Bang! You’re Dead! Or Not?

One of the most common questions I get from writers is what happens when someone is shot. Do they fall over dead? Do they bleed to death slowly? Are they able to run and jump and fight? The answer is that all of these are possible.

You’ve seen it a thousand times in movies. The good guy shoots a bad guy, the bad guy drops to the ground, instantly dead, very little blood, and his hair is perfect. Doesn’t usually happen that way in real life though. In order for a gunshot to be immediately fatal, it usually has to strike the brain, the heart, or the very upper part of the spinal cord. A gunshot in these areas can result in instantaneous death but even in these circumstances the victim often survives. At least long enough to get to the hospital and often long after that.

But most gunshot injuries are not to those areas and are not instantly fatal. Typically the victim bleeds to death if not properly and quickly treated. This will happen faster if the lungs are injured because here the victim can literally drown in his own blood. It will be much slower if the bullet enters the abdomen and damages a major organ and slower still if the bullet injuries an extremity. In any of these areas, damaging a major blood vessel will lead to more rapid exsanguination than if no vessel is struck. This means that, depending upon the exact nature of the wound, the victim could bleed to death in minutes or hours or even days.

But how many times can someone be shot and still survive? Again it depends upon the nature of the wounds. Several gunshot wounds are worse than one but again it depends upon the damage done and the rapidity of blood loss. Almost anything is possible.

Witness Angel Alvarez. Someone must have forgotten to tell Angel that he couldn’t survive multiple gunshot wounds. Either that or Angel didn’t pay attention. Twenty one. That’s how many he survived. Don’t know whether this will make Guinness’s book but forensic experts believe that this could indeed be the record.

Read the story here.


Q&A: What Medical Treatments for Pain and Injury Were Available in Ancient Egypt?

Q: What were the most common medicinal herbs available in Egypt around 80 A.D. I am particularly interested in wound healing/protection and pain relief medications, preferably topically applied and acceptable to both humans and animals.

Cathy Fishburn

A: As with other ancient civilizations, Egyptian medicine was a combination of spiritual beliefs, social conventions, and empiric observations (learning via trial and error). They also inherited a strong belief in astrology from the Babylonians. Also, as with others, the Egyptians possessed a certain materia medica, literally the materials of medicine.

These included various potions, oils, salves, and ointments usually derived from plant and animal products. They were often applied and/or taken with great ceremony, which was designed to appease an angry god or attract one with healing powers. Imhotep was the Egyptian god of health and healing and most incantations were addressed to him. He was actually a mortal who served as vizer under King Zoser, who reigned during the Third Dynasty around 2980 BC. Imhotep was a gifted healer and was later deified as the god of medicine.

What we know of Egyptian medical treatment predominantly comes from several papyri that were discovered centuries later. These tend to be named for the person who discovered them. The most important are the Kahun Papyrus (c. 1850 BC), the Edwin Smith Papyrus (c. 1600 BC), the Ebers Papyrus (c. 1550 BC), and the London Papyrus (c. 1350 BC). Several sections of these documents deal with various medical and surgical issues. For example, the Ebers Papyrus lists 700 to 800 medical formulas.

Myrrh, frankincense, and manna were thought to help heal wounds and other illnesses. Antimony, copper, and other metals were mixed with herbs and believed to aid wound healing when used as a cleaning astringent. Often animal organs such as pig brain and ox spleen were mixed with animal fat and honey and taken orally or smeared over wounds. Sometimes tortoise shells and even crushed lapis lazuli were added. Purgatives came from plant extracts made from senna, colocynth, and castor oil. Garlic, onion, tamarisk, honey, opium, cannabis, hellebore, and even animal excrement (crocodile dung held special power) were mixed and applied as ointments and poultices, or compacted into pills and swallowed, or mixed with liquids for gargling, or given as suppositories, or heated and used as fumigants.

Humans and animals received similar treatments for the most part.

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Posted by on August 8, 2010 in Medical Issues, Poisons & Drugs, Q&A


Erythropoietin and Survival Time

In victims of traumatic deaths, one of the questions that is often useful to investigators is how long the victim lived after the traumatic event. Let’s say someone is in an automobile accident or is shot or stabbed and bleeds to death. Did this take 15 minutes or 15 hours? A hormone within the blood might help with this determination.

Erythropoietin (EPO), a hormone produced in the kidneys and liver, regulates red blood cell (RBC) production. In people who are anemic, that is who have a low RBC count, erythropoietin production is revved up so that more RBCs will be produced by the bone marrow. The body has a way of taking care of itself. Erythropoietin is also a performance-enhancing drug in that it increases red blood cell production and therefore increases the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen. The more oxygen the blood carries the longer and more intensely someone can exercise. Distance runners and cyclists have often used erythropoietin to improve their performance in races. It is banned by virtually every competitive organization in the world.

So what does all this have to do with survival time after an injury? It is been found that when someone is bleeding and their blood count is dropping because of this blood loss, the kidneys and the liver began to produce larger amounts of erythropoietin. All they see is that the red blood count is dropping and that the blood pressure is low and their natural response is to increase the production of this hormone.

A group of researchers at the Osaka City University Medical School’s Department of Legal Medicine recently published an article in the journal Forensic Science International in which they looked at the blood levels of EPO in relationship to survival time after major injuries that caused massive bleeding. They found that victims who survived many hours after such injuries showed a rapid increase in EPO in their blood serum over the first six hours after the injury. They concluded that this test might be useful in determining if someone died early within the six-hour window versus dying later.

How would this be useful in a criminal case? Remember the case of Chante Mallard? This 27-year-old woman in Fort Worth, Texas decided to get drunk and stoned and then drive home at around three o’clock in the morning. Unfortunately Mr. Gregory Biggs was walking along the road. She struck him with her car. He flew through the passenger side windshield and was lodged in the shattered window head down in her passenger seat. Ms. Mallard did what anyone would do in that circumstance: she drove home, parked the car in the garage, and did some more drugs, leaving Mr. Biggs to bleed to death.

Mr. Biggs survived the initial impact and only died later because Ms. Mallard failed to do the right thing and call for the medical care that might have saved his life. The evidence for this was that his blood pooled within the door pocket of Ms. Mallard’s car where his hand had come to rest. The fact that blood ran down his arm and collected in this area proved that he was still alive for many hours after the impact. At death, the heart stops, the blood ceases its movement, and bleeding stops.

Had this new EPO test been available and used in this case, it would’ve shown a very elevated level in Mr. Biggs whereas had he died almost immediately from the impact these levels would be very low. In the latter case, Ms. Mallard would be guilty of reckless homicide but the fact that she ignored this man and allowed him to die a slow death added another level of depravity to this situation. This might explain why she was sentenced to 50 years in prison rather than some shorter time.


Q&A: Can DNA Be Used To Identify Multiple Assailants In a Four Decade Old Rape?

Q: Is it possible to determine if a woman found dead in sub-zero temperatures was raped by more than one assailant 40 years after the event? If so, how could this be accomplished? Could a pathologist conclude that the woman was raped, as opposed to consensual intercourse, if there is no physical evidence such as bruising? Could evidence obtained in 1969 be preserved and used today to identified suspects through DNA testing?

A: DNA for testing comes from the genetic material found in the nuclei of the body’s cells. Essentially every cell in the body contains a nucleus. The notable exception is the Red Blood Cells (RBCs), which do not contain nuclei. But, White Blood Cells (WBCs) do. DNA testing of blood tests the DNA found in the nuclei of the WBCs.

Adequate DNA samples have been gleaned from semen stains, bite marks, sweat, sputum, hair, and saliva. Even from the saliva left behind by licking a stamp or sealing an envelope. In the case of saliva from stamps or bites, the DNA tested comes from the cells that line the mouth (called buccal cells), which are constantly shed into the saliva. Hair does not contain cells and thus no DNA, but hair follicles do. A single hair follicle can easily yield enough DNA for testing.

As you can see, very small samples may be enough. Perhaps only a single cell will work.

DNA is a fairly hardy molecule and survives time, drying, mixing with other materials, and many other adverse circumstances. It does not survive heating and exposure to acids, however. Both heat and acids denature, or destroy, the DNA strands. DNA testing does not require intact cells, merely intact DNA. This means that clotted blood, dried semen, and tissue fragments found under victims’ fingernails might yield enough DNA for conclusive testing.

The sub-zero temperatures in your scenario would protect the DNA from decay and would thus help the coroner by preserving better samples for him to collect. If he then preserved them properly they could still be useful decades later. Typically, the DNA sample is air dried and stored in a non-reactive container.

DNA has been found in Egyptian mummies, exhumed bodies, and samples stored from very old crimes. It was two-decade-old DNA evidence that ultimately linked Gary Leon Ridgway, the Green River Killer, to a string of prostitute murders near Seattle, Washington. This was possible because the DNA was handled and stored properly.

Yes, it would be possible to determine that there had been two or more assailants, since each would leave behind his own distinctive DNA pattern. The finding of two or more different DNA patterns in the semen sample obtained from the victim would prove this and when the suspects were apprehended, each could be matched to his own contribution to that sample. Mixing the semen would not alter this finding in any way since each DNA strand would be unchanged. It’s not like mixing blue paint with yellow paint to make green paint but rather like mixing tiny blue beads with yellow beads. From a distance, they might appear as though they had melted together to form a green mixture, but on close examination, each tiny bead would be seen to have remained intact and separate. The same with DNA.

The problem of determining whether a rape occurred or not is a question for the jury. Rape is not a medical term, but rather a legal one. The coroner could possibly determine if penetration occurred and if semen were present. If he found trauma to the vagina or to other body parts that might suggest the victim was struck or restrained, he might conclude that in his opinion the intercourse was not consensual. Still, it would require a judge or a jury to determine whether a rape occurred or not.

For more about DNA testing check out:

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Posted by on August 1, 2010 in DNA, Q&A

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