Forensic Biology


From hit television shows such as CSI, Bones, and Forensic Files to newspaper headlines that breathlessly relate the discovery of a murder victim’s remains and to Casey Anthony, Amanda Knox, and other real-life courtroom cases, it is clear that the world of forensic science has captured the public imagination. Forensic science describes the application of scientific knowledge to legal problems and encompasses an impressively wide variety of subdisciplines and areas of expertise ranging from forensic anthropology to wildlife forensics. In this course, we will specifically focus on the realm of forensic biology—the generation and use of legally relevant information gleaned from the field of biology. In an effort to move beyond sensationalism and the way forensic biology is portrayed in the public media, we will explore the actual science and techniques that form the basis of forensic biology and seek to understand the use and limitations of such information in the legal sphere. Beginning with the historical development of forensic biology, selected topics will likely include death and stages of decomposition, determination of postmortem intervals, the role of microorganisms in decomposition, vertebrate and invertebrate scavenging, wound patterning, urban mummification, biological material collection and storage, victim and ancestral identification by genetic analysis, the use of DNA databases such as CODIS, and the biological basis of other criminalistics procedures, including fingerprinting and blood type analysis. Finally, we will consider DNA privacy and Supreme Court rulings, including the 2013 decision Maryland v. King, which established the right of law enforcement to take DNA samples from individuals arrested for a crime. In all of these areas, the techniques and concepts employed are derived from some of the most fundamental principles and structure/function relationships that underlie the entire field of biology. No background in biology is required; indeed, a primary objective of this course is to use our exploration within the framework of forensic biology as a means to develop a broader and more thorough understanding of the science of biology.