DNA testing has been the forensic scientist's workhorse for identification purposes, but it comes with major issues, reports the Los Angeles Times, and scientists now say they've got a possible substitute: hair proteins. Per a study published in PLoS One, these proteins are like replicas of a person's DNA, which is more prone to degradation over time and due to exposure; plus, the DNA found in hair is of the mitochondrial kind (originating only from the mother) instead of the nuclear kind (from both parents). By adding this type of testing to one's forensics arsenal, we could soon see hair protein testing take the place of DNA testing not only on shows like Bones, but also in real-life labs. "Currently forensic science is very dependent on DNA," lead author Glendon Parker tells Popular Science. "But analyzing proteins can add information that can help make a case stronger."
The scientists looked at hair samples from 76 men and women (66 of European descent, five from Kenya, and five African Americans) and six sets of remains from the 18th and 19th centuries and discovered nearly 200 protein markers that could differentiate one person from another. When they then compared the protein IDs to those culled from DNA in subjects' blood, they made a match 98.3% of the time. It takes less than three days to do a hair protein analysis and will likely cost about as much as DNA testing, the researchers say. Drawbacks to this experiment: the study's small sample size, as well as the fact that a large chunk of hair is currently needed to do an analysis, the Washington Post and Quartz report. But researchers are hopeful for its potential. "I don't think it's an overstatement to say it could be a game-changer," says Christopher Hopkins, director of the forensic science graduate program at the University of California-Davis. (But can protein testing bust cheap fish?)