crime scene innovation

New program in Houston is training future forensic scientists and digitizing DNA evidence

Othram and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center have teamed up to create a modern forensic sequencing lab program. Getty Images

Houston-area's first-privately held forensic sequencing laboratory has partnered with The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to create an academic program that will provide forensic training to genome scientists that will help them crack previously unsolved criminal cases.

Othram was created in 2018 specifically to apply the power of modern DNA parallel sequences to forensic evidence. Its new academic program partnership is aimed at training Molecular Genetic Technology (MGT) graduate students in the newest laboratory techniques and technology for the recovery and analysis of human DNA from deteriorated or contaminated materials.

"Because this field is so new, there aren't many individuals who are experts in both genomics and forensic science," David Mittelman, CEO and founder of Othram, tells InnovationMap. "We wanted to collaborate with M.D. Anderson who has a great genetic testing program already to help students learn about how to apply current techniques that are being used to solve cases that no one else can solve."

MGT students, who study the role of genetics in medicine, will be able to train with Othram experts using new technological advances such as the ability to harness whole-genome shotgun sequencing for the unique needs that forensic evidence demands like human identification.

"The Texas Medical Center is the best in the world, specifically for genomics training so it seemed like a natural fit," says Mittelman. "Especially since we want to attract and expose students to this new area of forensics as a possible outlet."

The use of new technology is what sets Othram apart, last year they helped solved a 103-year old mystery of a headless torso found in an Idaho cave, using their Forensic-Grade Genome SequencingTM technology. The DNA extraction and sequencing lab at Othram distill the sample DNA down to a sequence, which with the help of computer software, can be analyzed to reconstruct the whole genome of an individual's DNA.

Then the DNA is digitized and matched to other databases such as the FBI's Combined DNA Index System to cross-reference for a DNA match. With Othram's ability to construct whole genomes from previously unusable DNA samples, they can further the search to identify human remains or identify suspects from living relatives.

"There is no one currently leveraging whole genome sequencing right now like Othram," says Mittelman. "There's a whole range of opportunities from taking a look at the whole genome from ancestry to relationship testing and physical trait prediction."

The unique learning experience for MGT students will integrate classroom lectures, laboratory demonstrations, and technological experiences. Mittleman says that the academic program partnership will enable a new generation of forensic genomics scientists to digitize the nation's DNA evidence and solve cold cases.

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Building Houston

 
 

The new Land Bridge will create safe passage from humans and animals. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

Last week, Memorial Park made headlines when it triumphantly opened its lush and verdant Eastern Glades. The 100-acre destination transformed largely inaccessible green space into a destination offering up picnic areas, native wetlands, a savanna, a pine-hardwood forest, green spaces, and miles of accessible trails.

Now, the Memorial Park Conservancy has announced that construction has begun on Memorial Park's Land Bridge and Prairie project. The 100-acre project, slated for completion in late 2022, will create a new community space with enhanced recreation opportunities for park users with "unmatched vantage points of urban skyline views," according to a press release. Memorial Park's prairie, which adjoins the Land Bridge to the north and the south, aims to re-establish endangered native Gulf Coast prairie, savanna, and wetlands.

The Land Bridge and its corresponding prairie are part of the Memorial Park Master Plan, made possible by a $70 million gift from the Kinder Foundation, and associated the Ten-Year Plan.

Commuters, no need to worry: Memorial Drive will remain open throughout the duration of Land Bridge and Prairie construction. Traffic will be reduced from three lanes to two each way beginning September, while a new section of Memorial Drive and the tunnel arch structures for the Land Bridge are completed directly south of the operating lanes.
All lanes will reopen in fall 2021 once the new Memorial Drive alignment through tunnels is complete, according to a release.

The Land Bridge Photo courtesy of MPC

Additionally, per the conservancy, the Land Bridge will:


Provide safety and connectivity
This will benefit both humans and animals crossing Memorial Drive. The Land Bridge will establish two dynamic greenspace connections over Memorial Drive that reunite the north and south sides of the Park while expanding the existing trail network and providing increased connectivity within the Park. While the Land Bridge will provide connectivity for Park visitors and wildlife over Memorial Drive, a stream corridor constructed through the Prairie and a culvert will provide connectivity under Memorial Drive. Together these elements will provide much-needed wildlife connectivity within Houston's largest urban wilderness park and to the natural Buffalo Bayou corridor.

Restore nearly 45 acres of native coastal prairie
This will establish a more resilient ecology during natural disruptions and improve animal habitats. Native coastal prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America, with less than 1 percent of its historic range remaining today. These forthcoming ecosystems will be home to numerous species of flora and fauna.

Create a new destination for visitors
New opportunities include nature education, leisure walking, interval running and cycling, stargazing, relaxing, and more.

Improve stormwater management
The project will detain stormwater that flows through Memorial Park to Buffalo Bayou during heavy rain events, lessening the impact of peak storms. A stream channel constructed through the site, along with the network of native prairie and savanna, will support greater regional biodiversity and act as a green sponge, helping to absorb and clean stormwater. The constructed wetlands will help to purify water and reduce roadway pollutants that would otherwise be released into the watershed.

"From aiding with critical stormwater management to granting people and wildlife safer crossing over Memorial Drive to providing a dynamic outdoor destination for all visitors, the Land Bridge and Prairie will be an asset not just for Memorial Park but for all Houstonians," said Mayor Sylvester Turner in a statement. "It's about unifying both sides of the Park and giving people a new landmark that they can be proud of and use to enjoy nature."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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