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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Forensics studies look to pollen

Forensic palynology could be used to combat terrorism and aid law enforcement agencies in criminal investigations, said Dr. Vaughn Bryant, Texas A&M professor and A&M Palynology laboratory head.
Palynology is the study of pollen grains and spores. Forensic palynology applies the science of pollen to matters of law.
The widespread nature of pollen makes it an available factor for any type of criminal investigation, Bryant said. In cases where minimal evidence is available, pollen could be a critical piece of the puzzle.
“Essentially, because pollen is so ubiquitous, pollen is going to be found at any crime scene. This is why I think what we are doing in pollen research is applicable to forensics,” Bryant said. “There is usually so much pollen in the air that the average individual inhales about 27,000 pollen grains on any given day just by walking or working outdoors. That’s why this technique works so well.”
Despite the ease in which a pollen sample can be located at the scene of a crime or on evidence, forensic palynology is not widely practiced. This valuable, yet untapped resource is what Bryant calls “the best kept secret in forensics.”
A pollen sample taken as evidence can tell investigators the specific locale of a crime as well as the time of year it took place, and if evidence has been removed from its original location, said Dr. David Jarzen, director of global education at the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
“Palynology can provide you with information as to location and season (that the event took place),” Jarzen said.
Forensic palynology can also be a useful tool for law enforcement, said Dr. John Shane, director of research at the McCrone Research Institute.
“You can analyze the pollen and spore content of a piece of clothing or stored items to determine their history,” Shane said. “We’ve looked at the pollen and spore content of counterfeit money to determine its origin.”
Pollen analysis has been used to determine if honey has been illegally imported from countries outside North America through Mexico under the auspices of the NAFTA agreement, Shane said.
Pollen, in its abundance, is a cheap medium for the dispersal of biological weapons, such as viruses or bacteria, Shane said.
Palynology can also be used to fight terrorism by determining the origin of manufacture of such biological weapons, he said.
Research into forensic palynology is getting off to a slow start, however. The small number of labs performing work in forensic palynology is a result of the small number of palynologists in practice and the even smaller fraction of these who want to be involved in forensics, Shane said.
But palynology has a high degree of reliability, thanks to the use of scanning electron microscopes, Jarzen said.
Pollen evidence is as good as any other form of evidence, but it takes carefully implemented precautionary measures to ensure this evidence remains viable in court proceedings, Bryant said. Pollen samples must be very closely monitored and safeguarded against contamination to maintain their integrity.
Because pollen techniques have not been traditionally used in proceedings, most people are unaware of how effective pollen can be, Bryant said.
“I believe…it will take a high profile case for (palynology’s effectiveness) to gain national attention,” he said.

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