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GRAHAM YELTON
GRAHAM YELTON

Welcome to the Body Farm

GRAHAM YELTON
GRAHAM YELTON

By Rene Ebersole

Beyond the border of an ordinary parking lot lies the most cutting-edge graveyard in the world … and a hands-on lab for cops and forensic anthropologists.

It was Valentine's Day when the gravediggers finished. The crew stood there waiting, their long-sleeved shirts drenched from a mixture of cold rain and sweat. At their feet were the holes—four of them—dug deep into the heavy clay. Nearby, young women and men in rubber gloves and medical gowns prepared to haul the cadavers down the hill.

Picking their way through the barren woodland, they carried 10 bodies to the burial site. Into the first ditch, the widest, they placed six corpses. In the second, they arranged three more. Just one body went into the third grave. The last was left empty. Then the gravediggers picked up their shovels and filled the holes.

Nicknamed “the body farm,” the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center is the oldest and most established of only four such facilities in the country. Since its inception in the early ’80s, its three wooded acres have been rife with corpses: bodies stuffed inside cars, enshrouded in plastic, rotting in shallow graves. Among them, grad students dutifully clock hours combing corpses for insects, while law enforcement agents undergo crime-scene training exercises.

It’s here, using donated cadavers, that scientists have pioneered some of the most innovative techniques in forensic science, particularly practices that help investigators pinpoint time of death—that linchpin of criminal cases that so often determines whether a killer is charged or set free. “The research we do at the facility is predominantly based on decomposition,” says center director Dawnie Steadman, “but we’re expanding that tremendously.” Now, as the bodies rest in those four anonymous graves, the center is primed to undertake a cutting-edge three-year experiment that may help scientists uncover clandestine burial sites in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones. With the help of laser technology, the reach of the body farm is about to grow exponentially, and the findings will shed light on some of history’s most heinous unsolved crimes.

Plotting the Farm

Back in 1969, the director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation needed some advice. He had a dead cow on his hands and was trying to determine when it had died. At the time, cattle rustling was a local problem. Rustlers killed cows in the field, butchered them on the spot, hung up the meat in refrigerated trucks, and sped off. With thousands of acres to manage, ranchers rarely discovered the carcasses before several weeks had passed. Inevitably, they would call the police. But the cops were powerless—without knowing when the cows had died, there was no way to build a timeline and narrow the suspects.

The investigator figured that if anyone could age a bovine carcass, it was Bill Bass, a 41-year-old forensic anthropology professor at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Bass sometimes lent a hand identifying skeletal remains for the agency and local law enforcement. He could look at a pile of bones and read clues in them: who the person was, what had happened. Bass’s credentials were impeccable. He’d trained at the University of Pennsylvania under the internationally renowned bone detective Wilton Krogman, known as the “medical Sherlock Holmes.” Krogman had worked on hundreds of criminal cases: everyday homicides, mob victims dug from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, even the kidnapped Lindbergh baby. One of the major things he’d taught Bass was how teeth can shed light on a murder victim’s age and identity.

But Bass didn’t have much experience studying the remains of large livestock. When he first got the request, he did what any scientist would do. “I looked in the literature,” says Bass, now 85. “There wasn’t much there. So I called him back and said, ‘We really don’t know this. But if you can find a rancher who would give us a cow, I will look at it every day to see what’s happening.’ I put a P.S. on that letter and said, ‘We really need the rancher to give us four cows. One in spring, one in summer, one in fall, and one in winter. Because the major factor in decay is temperature.' Well, nothing ever happened with that.”

A few years later, in the spring of 1971, Bass took a new job teaching at the University of Tennessee. He moved to Knoxville, where the Tennessee medical examiner asked whether he would serve as the state’s forensic anthropologist. Bass accepted and quickly realized he wasn’t in Kansas anymore. In the sparsely populated and relatively arid Midwest, police typically brought him boxes of dry bones. In Tennessee, which had twice as many people and significantly more rainfall, the corpses were “fresher, smellier, and infinitely buggier.” When agents asked how long the bodies had been stewing, Bass could hardly say; there was no scientific basis for an answer.

So he resolved to fill the void. “In 1980, I went to the dean and said ‘I need some land to put dead bodies on,’” he recalls. “Everybody says, ‘Well, what’d he say?’" Bass continues. “He didn’t say anything. He picked up the phone and called the man on the agriculture campus who handles land, and I went over to see him.” There were a couple of wasted acres behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center where the facility used to burn its trash, the ag man said. Bass could use those.

CSI: Farm

On his newly staked plot, Bass spearheaded the first organized effort to determine what happens when a body rots. He and his students re-created crime scenes, placing bodies in shallow graves and putting them in abandoned cars. The initial investigations were fairly basic: How long until the arms fall off? When does the skull start showing through? How long before all the flesh is gone?

They weren’t surprised to find that temperature figures heavily in the rate of decomposition. A body decays faster in summer than in the winter—therefore more quickly in Florida than in Wisconsin. Is the body in the sun or shade? What was the person wearing? Bodies rot faster in wool than in cotton because wool preserves heat. Gradually, the team developed timelines and statistical formulas that could help estimate, with incredible accuracy, how long a person had been dead based on atmospheric conditions.

There are also the bugs. One of Bass’s graduate students tracked the insects that feed on corpses. Blowflies are first on the scene, and they’re crucial in helping determine time of death. As soon as the flies land, they begin laying eggs in a body’s damp orifices (eyes, mouth, nose, open wounds), and the life cycle of the insects marks the hours since death occurred. The method proved highly accurate when atmospheric conditions were taken into account, and it put entomology at the forefront of forensic science.

As the anthropology program expanded to offer a Ph.D. degree, Bass started running field courses for cops and FBI agents. He became a star member of investigative teams working on tough criminal cases, from serial murders to celebrity plane crashes. Although he’s now retired, he still consults on tough cases. “The smell turns a lot of people off,” Bass says. “But I never see a forensic case as a dead body. I see it as a challenge to figure out who that individual is and what happened to them.”

In the three decades since the body farm began, it has schooled hundreds of graduate students, law enforcement agents, and scientists. “It is impressive,” says Frank McCauley, who has worked for 25 years as an agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. McCauley was a student under Bass, and he regularly attends a recurring week-long course for law enforcement covering the basics of forensic evidence collection. “It arms you with enough knowledge and enough resources to recognize and know what you may have,” he says. “I consider Dr. Bass a national treasure.”

Graham Yelton

With hundreds of people signing up every year to donate their remains to the body farm, the center continues to grow. And recently, it acquired a new piece of land that promises to take forensic research to a whole new level. In 2007, a Vancouver-based forensic anthropologist named Amy Mundorff was rock climbing in Squamish, British Columbia. Mundorff, who carries a Prada key chain emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, was a veteran of the New York medical examiner’s office. She’d been injured as a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and then spent years identifying the remains of victims before relocating to the West Coast. With her on the cliffs was an old friend, Michael Medler, a geographer at Western Washington University.

As the two scientists scaled the face of granite masiffs, they chatted about their research. Mundorff wanted to use her experience in New York to tackle global human rights issues, but she knew about the field’s frustrations. While attempting to recover a victim of the 1995 genocide in Bosnia, one of her colleagues had followed a tip and dug around the suspected grave site, only to come up empty-handed. All the known graves in Bosnia had been excavated, Mundorff told Medler, yet more than 7000 people were still missing. Where could they be? Without better technology, the mystery might never be solved. Forensic scientists working with human rights groups were trying to use satellite imaging and aerial photography, but those methods weren’t effective at finding unknown burial sites.

“Has anyone tried lidar?” Medler asked. Lidar is a remote sensing laser technology that analyzes light reflections to detect subtle changes in the topography of the land. Medler had been introduced to it while studying the effects of forest fires. Unlike satellite scans, lidar penetrates the tree canopy, making it possible to see where the ground has been disturbed. Mundorff and Medler realized that maybe they had found a solution. Excited by the possibilities, they wanted to team up on a study immediately, but lidar was expensive. To do real experiments they’d need funding and the support of a research facility. They looked for open grants but were unsuccessful.

Finally, in 2009, Mundorff took a job as a professor at the University of Tennessee’s anthropology department and moved to Knoxville. Now she had the resources, the land, and the support of an internationally renowned institution. She called Medler and told him that they were going to test their theory. Medler was thrilled; he would consult from afar.

As soon as Mundorff arrived in Tennessee, she began doing the spadework for the lidar project while also working on a study examining the DNA in skeletal remains. Six months in, she got an email from a prospective graduate student named Katie Corcoran who had been using lidar on archaeological sites; Corcoran wanted to apply the same technology to finding mass grave sites. “I was blown away because she literally pitched our idea right back at me,” Mundorff says.

To begin the study, Mundorff would need a fresh piece of land. The center had recently acquired an adjacent property, which was quickly designated for the project. Ten bodies were ready, gifts from donors who wanted to help advance forensic science. There was just one hurdle: The new property needed fences—one for privacy and a barbed-wire one for security. This didn’t prove so easy. For three years, approvals sat snagged in university red tape. Mundorff was frustrated. At last, in February 2013, the fences went up, and by Valentine’s Day, the burial site was ready to receive the bodies.

Mundorff and her team were primarily looking at how decomposition changes the chemical content of the soil and nearby vegetation. This is the reason it had been important to secure new land, away from where other cadavers had decayed. If the extra nitrogen emitting from the corpses went into the soil, theoretically it would fertilize plants, resulting in subtle cues over the burial site—the plants would be greener and taller than the surrounding vegetation because they’d thrive in the aerated nitrogen-rich soil. That fine contrast—potentially not discernible by people traveling through a jungle on foot—might be detectable with lidar.

Mundorff and her team have another theory they’re testing using thermal imaging technology. Because decomposition creates a lot of thermal energy, imaging equipment can help identify areas where “something warm is going on,” Mundorff says. Last fall, a partnering colleague from Oak Ridge National Laboratory set up $150,000 worth of thermal equipment on the property. With temperature probes in the ground, a giant camera took pictures at five-minute intervals, allowing researchers to see the changes in temperature overnight. On the first night, Mundorff and Corcoran camped out at the center, their sleeping bags spread out on desks. They didn’t want anything to happen to the equipment. (What if it rained?) They ordered takeout Mexican and set an alarm to go off every hour so they could stumble through the dark woods to check on the camera. “Katie carried the spider stick,” says Mundorff. “She has no fears.”

The Future of Forensic Science

Today, data from the experiment is just beginning to accumulate. But what Mundorff and Corcoran suspect—and hope the experiment confirms—is that graves with multiple bodies emit more heat than those with fewer. (The empty grave is the control, representing a place where there might be a hole but no bodies.) “There are hidden graves all over the world, and a good number of them are in areas that are still dangerous,” says Mundorff. “Being able to detect them remotely is a first step in recovering the bodies and returning them to the families—and in collecting evidence if there are going to be criminal prosecutions.”

Over the next three years, about a dozen researchers and graduate students will continue monitoring the four graves. If things go as planned, the project will assist countries trying to recover from the losses of hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of people. Human rights investigators are searching for genocide victims in Argentina, Cyprus, Bolivia, Guatemala, Uganda, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and beyond. Steadman hopes the center can play a role in helping families find their loved ones. Bass, for his part, intends to remain part of the effort by donating his own remains to the body farm. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and I don’t see why I should stop when I die. If the students can learn something from my skeleton, well that’s OK with me.” He’s not alone in this hope. Nearly 3300 people from all 50 states and six different countries have registered to join him.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. Some live dodos did make it to Europe from Mauritius, and the museum thought its specimen might have been one of those birds—but new research, published after Mental Floss's initial interview with Carnall, casts doubt on that theory: After scanning the head, Carnall's colleagues at the museum and Warwick University discovered that the bird had been shot in the back of the head with pellets used to hunt birds in the 1600s. Though the pellets didn't penetrate the dodo's thick skull, "the researchers suggest it was a fatal shooting," Carnall tells Mental Floss in an email. "This new evidence perhaps indicates it wasn’t the remains of a live dodo brought back from Mauritius—unless it was a rather heavy-handed way of putting a dodo down."

The discovery raises questions not just about where the dodo was shot and who killed it but, as Oxford University Museum of Natural History director Paul Smith told The Guardian, about how made it to London with its skin and feathers intact. "If it was [shot] in Mauritius," he said, "there is a really serious question about how it was preserved and transported back, because they didn’t have many of the techniques that we use in the modern day to preserve soft tissues.” As Carnall says, "The mystery continues."

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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Lucy Quintanilla
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How Scientists Are Using Plant-Based DNA Barcodes to Bust Counterfeiters
Lucy Quintanilla
Lucy Quintanilla

From high-end guitars to bolts that keep the wings attached to military aircraft, manufacturers are turning toward DNA to catch counterfeit products. A look inside the technology that’s sending crooks to jail in ways Sherlock Holmes only dreamed of.

 

Josh Davis dreamed of touring the United States with his rock band. He never dreamed the FBI would be in the audience.

Through the mid-2000s, the Josh Davis Band played Tucson, Arizona and Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Reno, Nevada and Little Rock, Arkansas; Dallas, Texas and Cheyenne, Wyoming; Bozeman, Montana and Tallahassee, Florida. The band earned extra cash selling guitars to pawn shops, hawking brands such as Gibson, Guild, and Martin. They sold each instrument for about $400 and used the cash to pay for gas, hotels, and food.

None of the guitars were authentic.

To fetch a high price, Davis and his bandmates bought cheap, unbranded guitars and painted fake trademarks on each instrument. (Later, they'd etch fake labels with a dremel hand tool, a CNC wood router, and a laser printer.) All they needed to close each deal was a gullible store clerk.

They found dozens. According to court documents, “Davis told [his drummer] that it was the responsibility of the pawn shops to determine if the guitar was fake or not." Over three years, the Josh Davis Band duped pawn shops across 22 states, selling 165 counterfeit guitars for more than $56,000.

The FBI noticed.

In 2014, Davis was tried in federal court in the eastern district of Pennsylvania, not far from the C.F. Martin & Co. guitar factory in the town of Nazareth. Eighty percent of the fake guitars had been falsely labeled as Martins. John M. Gallagher, an Assistant United States Attorney, argued on the company’s behalf: “[I]t was very difficult for us to quantify financially what money Martin Guitars or the other guitar companies are out because of this scam, but they certainly have damage to their reputation. And that’s not fair. I mean, it’s difficult for an American manufacturer to compete in a global economy as it is.”

Gallagher had a point. The Martin Guitar Company was already busy fighting a legal battle over counterfeit products in China. The Josh Davis Band just added insult to injury.

“As we encountered increased counterfeiting not just abroad, but in the United States, we wanted to find a solution,” says Gregory Paul, Martin’s Chief Technology Officer, in an interview. “We needed a technology that’s forensic grade, recognized in judicial systems around the world as definitive proof of authenticity.”

A solution would emerge in England at a Shell gas station.

 
 

The two bandits knew it all. They knew the Loomis van would be packed with cash. They knew the driver would park the van at Preston Old Road to refill an ATM. They knew the guards handling the money would be unarmed.

On a brisk December 2008 morning in Blackburn, England, the two men—dressed in black and their faces obscured by balaclavas—hid in waiting.

As expected, the Loomis van appeared and parked near the ATM. Two unarmed security guards—including Imran Aslam, a 32 year old who'd been working the job for just two months—stepped out. When Aslam revealed a cash box containing £20,000, the bandits pounced.

“Open the door or I’ll f***ing shoot you,” one of them demanded, gripping a Brocock revolver. He gestured to the locked door of the building that was to receive the money delivery. Aslam refused.

“There’s nothing I can do,” he said. “I can’t let you in.” Aslam gently placed the cash box on the sidewalk at the men’s feet. “That’s all I’ve got. That’s all I can give you."

A Loomis van on a street.
A Loomis van like the one that was robbed in the Blackburn heist.
Alamy

As one thief grabbed the box, the gunman pointed the handgun at Aslam and pulled the trigger three times. Two shots whizzed into the air. A third tore into Aslam’s right thigh.

With Aslam crumpled on the sidewalk, the crooks sprinted away and escaped on a hidden getaway motorcycle. Hours later, they jimmied open the cash box, snatched up the money, and lit the empty container on fire, leaving it to smolder in the woods.

It was not the first ATM attack in the area. Months earlier, 30 miles east in the village of Thornton, the same gang had snatched a loot of £50,000. Police were grasping at dead ends until a gas station attendant noticed that a customer had paid with bills covered in peculiar stains.

It was a dead giveaway. Every Loomis cash box contains a canister of explosive dye. If anybody improperly pries open the container, the dye bursts and the money gets drenched. Suspecting the money might be stolen, the station attendant notified the police. Swabs of the bills were soon mailed to a special forensic laboratory in Stony Brook, New York.

 
 

Stony Brook is a stone's throw east of the Gatsby-esque mansions of Long Island's Gold Coast. It's a college town strung with winding suburban lanes, harborside nature preserves, and a yacht club.

It’s also the heart of America’s “DNA corridor.”

Seventeen miles west sits Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where James Watson first publicly described the double helix structure of DNA. Fourteen miles east is Brookhaven National Laboratory, where scientists discovered the muon-induced neutron, Maglev technology, and point DNA mutations. Stony Brook itself is command central for a biotechnology company called Applied DNA Sciences. “This area probably has the highest density of DNA scientists in the world,” James Hayward, the company’s chairman, president, & CEO, tells Mental Floss.

Stony Brook, NY
Stony Brook, New York
John Feinberg, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Applied DNA Sciences makes, tags, and tests DNA. The company has what Hayward calls “without a doubt, one of the world’s largest capacities to manufacture DNA.” One of their products, called SigNature DNA, can be used as a “molecular barcode” that can track products and even people. It can be found in Loomis cash boxes across the United Kingdom.

In fact, the exploding dye in each Loomis box holds a unique strain of DNA created specifically for that individual container. It is invisible and impossible to scrub clean. So when forensic scientists at Applied DNA tested the suspicious bills from the English gas station, they were able to pinpoint their exact origins—the cash box stolen from Blackburn.

By New Year's Day, five conspirators, including the ATM heist's gunman, Dean Farrell, and the group's ringleader, the ironically named Colin McCash, would be arrested. (Their victim, Aslam, would live to see them in court.) Since then, the same DNA technology has been used in more than 200 similar ATM heists. All of them have led to a conviction.

It was at the time of the Blackburn bust that the Martin Guitar Company decided to sign a contract with Applied DNA Sciences. “We were aware of the work Applied DNA was doing in the UK when we began talking to them,” Gregory Paul says. “Those cases certainly underscored the value of doing it.”

Today, just like the Loomis cash boxes, more than 750,000 Martin guitars are marked with a unique invisible DNA barcode created in Stony Brook. They're all part of an expanding effort to stop what is globally a $1.7 trillion problem—counterfeiting.

 
 

Step into the Martin guitar factory in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and you’ll see why the company goes through such lengths to protect the identity of each of its instruments. The factory floor buzzes and clangs with the sounds of woodworkers wielding chisels, lathes, sanders, and saws. Many musicians consider Martin the gold standard of acoustic guitars because of this handiwork.

The manufacturing process is involved and time-consuming. First, the wood is air dried, roasted in a kiln, and rested in a giant acclimating room for a year. (Some cuts are so rare that they must be locked in a cage.) The wood is cut with band saws and shaped by hand with bending irons. The braces inside the instrument—which prevent the guitar from collapsing on itself—are scalloped with paring knives, files, and scrapers. When workers glue the guitar, they clamp it with clothespins.

Martin clothespins
Paul Goodman, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The glossing process, which gives the instrument its sheen, is as dazzling as it is exhausting. Workers apply a stain, a vinyl seal coat, a filler coat, and a second vinyl seal coat. That’s followed by a light scuffing, three coats of lacquer, some sanding, three more coats of lacquer, more sanding, a final touch-up with a brush, a glaze of lacquer, a final sanding, a polish with a buffing robot, and then one last hand polish with a buffing bonnet made of lamb’s wool.

About 560 people work here. They take pride in their work—it can take months to manufacture a guitar. But for counterfeiters, it can take just a few hours.

Musical instruments may not be the first thing that pops to mind when people imagine counterfeiting—the word conjures grifters on Canal Street hawking fake Rolexes out of trench coats—but bootlegged musical instruments are a big problem. Martin knows this firsthand. In China, where copyright is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, a guitar-maker with no affiliation with the company once registered Martin's logo, technically earning the legal right to manufacture their own “Martin” guitars. “A Chinese national has hijacked our brand and is making, unfortunately, poorly made copies of Martin guitars with my family's name on them,” Chris Martin IV, the company’s CEO, announced.

It's not just Martin. In 2010, a raid on a Chinese factory turned up 100,000 packages of fake D’Addario guitar strings. (D’Addario estimates that nearly 70 percent of the string sets sold under its name in China are fake. In 2010, the company coughed up $750,000 to fund anti-counterfeiting activities.) Four years later, U.S. Customs and Border Protection discovered a shipment of 185 guitars coming from China that suspiciously bore “Made in USA” labels. The stash of fake Gibson, Les Paul, Paul Reed Smith, and Martin guitars could have screwed consumers out of more than $1 million.

The problem of counterfeit instruments isn't just about protecting the bank accounts of companies and their consumers. "There's an element of consumer safety, too," Gregory Paul explains. "As much as guitars get counterfeited, guitar strings are counterfeited ten times as much. And those products need to possess a certain tensile strength when tuning." A cheaply-made guitar string can be dangerous; it risks snapping and injuring the performer.

Inside the Martin Guitar Factory
Paul Goodman, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

None of this is new. The old fake label switcheroo has been the fraudster's go-to for centuries. The composer Tomaso Antonio Vitali was complaining about it back in 1685 after he bought a phony violin:

"[T]his violin bore the label of Nicolò Amati, a maker of great repute in his profession. Your petitioner has, however, discovered that the said violin was falsely labelled, he having found underneath the label one of Francesco Ruggieri, called 'Il Pero,' a maker of much less repute, whose violins at the utmost do not realize more than three pistoles. Your petitioner has consequently been deceived by the false label."

What's new is the technology available to counterfeiters today: While faking the label of an instrument has always been relatively easy, it's been historically difficult to counterfeit the tone unique to a particular brand or model. That's changing, and it has manufacturers concerned.

All it takes to make a convincing fake is fungi. In 2009, Dr. Francis Schwarze, of the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology, hired a luthier to make a violin from wood infected with Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria longipes, fungi known to uniquely degrade woody cell walls. When the fungal violin was tested against two 1711 Stradivarius violins, a jury of experts was asked to identify which was which; 63 percent believed the fungus-treated instrument had been made by Stradivarius.

A less earthy technique called torrefaction—a process that involves heating wood, cooling it, heating it again, and cooling it again—delivers similar results and is popular with mainstream musical instrument manufacturers. The cycle causes volatile oils, sugars, and resins to evacuate the wood, giving a brand-new instrument a rich tone reminiscent of a decades-old guitar.

Manufacturers such as Yamaha, Collings, Taylor, and Martin have all experimented with torrefaction. And while such technologies have improved the sound of new guitars, they've also fallen into the hands of counterfeiters—making it more difficult for unwitting consumers to pinpoint fraudulent products.

A microscopic barcode made of DNA could change that.

 
 

Think of DNA not as the building blocks of life, but as Mother Nature's attempt at writing code. Instead of using the dots and dashes of Morse code or the ones and zeroes of binary, DNA uses nucleotides: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C).

The arrangement of those nucleotides is what differentiates your boss from a bonobo. In the 1970s, shortly after scientists learned how to synthesize arbitrary stretches of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, experts realized that they could also encode messages with DNA in the same way that computer programmers did with ones and zeroes. (In the late 1970s, some scientists went so far to hypothesize that the DNA of viruses might contain messages from extraterrestrials; attempts to decode viral DNA found no alien fanmail.)

In 1988, Joe Davis, an artist-in-residence of sorts at MIT, became the first person to encode a message in DNA. Davis synthesized a strand of DNA—CCCCCCAACGCGCGCGCT—that, when decrypted by a computer program, visually resembled the ancient Germanic Runic figure for the female earth. The work, called Microvenus, was inserted into E. coli and reduplicated millions of times.

(We should note that this was a run-of-the-mill experiment for Davis, who is essentially a magnetic mad scientist with a penchant for performance art. He once built an aircraft powered by frog legs and concocted ways to make silkworms spin gold; a memorial he designed for the victims of Hurricane Katrina bottles up lightning and angrily redirects it back at the clouds.)

Writing about Microvenus in Arts Journal, Davis explained that, “unless it is purposefully destroyed, it could potentially survive for a period that is considerably longer than the projected lifespan of humanity itself.”

Twenty-four years later, George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University and a friend of Davis’s, converted his book Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves—about 53,426 words, 11 jpg images, and a line of JavaScript—into DNA. Like Davis, he reduplicated the DNA until he had produced 70 billion copies (making him, in a twisted way, the most published author on earth). A DNA sequencer later reassembled his book, word for word, with hardly a typo.

These biological party tricks may foreshadow the future of data storage, a world where all of our data is stored as As, Ts, Cs, and Gs. “Think of your word document stored on your laptop," explains James Hayward, Applied DNA’s president. "It’s just a lineal series of code, each bit with only two options: a zero or a one. But in DNA, each bit has four options.” Those four options mean that DNA can hold significantly larger amounts of information in a significantly smaller space. If you encoded all the information the planet produces each year into DNA, you could hold it in the palm of your hand.

In fact, Joe Davis has tinkered with that exact concept. He plans to encode all of Wikipedia into DNA, insert it into the genome of a 4000-year-old strain of apple, and plant his own Garden of Eden, growing "Trees of Knowledge" that will literally contain the world’s wisdom. (Well, Wikipedia's version of it.)

 
 

The same principles that enable Davis and Church to insert Runic art and books into DNA allow researchers at Applied DNA Sciences to create barcodes for Martin Guitar. It's a relatively simple concept: Whereas normal barcodes identify a product with a unique pattern of numbers, these barcodes use a unique sequence of nucleotides.

To do that, scientists first isolate a strand of plant DNA. They splice it, kick out any functional genetic information, shuffle the As, Cs, Ts, and Gs into a one-of-a-kind pattern, and stitch it back together. Then they make millions of copies of that strand, which are applied to the body and strings of Martin guitars.

The finished DNA barcode is genetically inert. It usually ranges from 100 to nearly 200 base pairs, long enough to create an unfathomably complicated sequence but short enough that, were it injected into a living human cell, nothing would happen: Ingesting a DNA barcode is no more dangerous than eating an Oreo. (It may even be healthier.)

"It is important to recognize that DNA is an ordinary component of food. You probably ate nearly a gram of it yesterday, which came from the DNA inside all plant and meat cells," explains MeiLin Wan, VP, Textile Sales at Applied DNA Sciences. "But because DNA is degraded down to its building blocks (A,T,C,G) before it has any chance of being taken up into the body (as ordinary nutrition) people do not become modified with plant or animal genes when we eat them … Thus, when used as a molecular bar code, DNA is as safe as food in that regard."

And while the DNA synthesized here is physically small, the sequence encoded within is substantially longer than any other barcode on the planet. “If it were a barcode, it’d be as long as your arm,” Dr. Michael Hogan, VP of Life Sciences at Applied DNA, said in a video.

And it's used for more than just musical instruments and cash boxes. These DNA barcodes are stamped onto pills, money, even vehicles. At least 10,000 high-end German cars possess a unique DNA stamp. Sweden’s largest electricity provider coats its copper supply in DNA barcodes, a move that has helped reduce theft of copper-coated wire by 85 percent. Pharmaceutical companies print DNA barcodes onto capsules and tablets to weed out dangerous fake drugs that may have slipped into the supply chain.

The Pentagon uses it too. When Vice Admiral Edward M. Straw was asked what kept him awake at night, he said nothing of IEDs or enemy combatants; he answered, “Aircraft fasteners. Nuts and bolts that hold components onto airplanes, such as wings. Wing bolts.” That's because the U.S. military’s spare parts system is rumored to contain approximately 1 million counterfeit parts—inferior nuts, bolts, and fasteners that could become a liability on the battlefield. Today, the Air Force uses DNA barcodes to ensure that junky hardware, which could wiggle or snap during flight, never sees an aircraft.

As for Martin, when I asked Gregory Paul where and how the DNA was applied onto the company's guitars, he just chuckled. "Yes. It is applied! That's all I can get into."

To see how it worked, I would have to drive to Stony Brook.

 
 

Wandering the halls of the Long Island High Technology Incubator is like peeking into the future’s window. Inside a squat set of buildings on the eastern campus of Stony Brook University, there’s a company called ImmunoMatrix, which aims to make vaccination needles obsolete; there's Vascular Simulations, which manufactures human dummies that have functioning cardiovascular systems; and there’s Applied DNA Sciences.

I wasn’t granted access to the laboratory where DNA is synthesized—the location is apparently secret, and visitors aren’t permitted because of the contamination risk—but I was permitted inside one of Applied DNA Sciences' forensic laboratories.

Only a small number of people have the clearances to enter the forensic lab here, and, of those, even fewer have access to the keys to the evidence locker. The room is locked: white walls, workstations, and a few scientists in lab coats handling equipment with names I dared not try to pronounce.

Textile Lab
The textile lab at Applied DNA Science.
Courtesy Applied DNA Science

I had imagined a room of objects waiting to be tested, guitars and airplane bolts and wads of cash. But to my surprise, all I see are small swatches of fabric. I'm told that whenever a company like Martin is testing the authenticity of a product, they simply need to swab the instrument. “There’s no way to cheat,” says Wan. “Because if there’s one molecule of our DNA, we will find it.”

Wan gets visibly excited when she talks about stopping fraud. She explains that approximately 15 percent of the goods traded around the globe are phony. Counterfeiting costs American businesses more than $200 billion a year, and the problem touches every industry. Zippo, for example, makes 12 million lighters every year, but counterfeiters match their output. Even your kitchen cabinets are unsafe: It's estimated that 50 percent of extra virgin olive oils in America are, in fact, impure. (Blame the Mafia.)

“People say this isn’t life or death, nobody is going to die from counterfeit products,” Wan says. “But this accumulated cheating casts a culture of doubt, it makes consumers and companies wonder: Am I getting ripped off? Because if you’re going to spend $500 on a Martin guitar instead of $50 on a generic instrument, then every component of that guitar should be made by Martin. Period.”

Here forensic scientists can find out who is telling the truth.

In the lab, the methods are similar to what you’d see on CSI, minus the dramatic music. Many of the scientists here previously worked in medical examiner's offices. “Everything we do is consistent with what you’d do in a human identification laboratory,” explains Dr. Ila Lansky, Director of Forensics.

To properly identify the DNA, samples from the swab in question must be multiplied, so they're ferried to an instrument called a thermal cycler. (It's basically a molecular photocopier: The DNA is heated. Then a heat-resistant enzyme called Polymerase—first discovered in the thermal springs of Yellowstone National Park—is added. When the DNA is heated once more, the Polymerase helps double the number of DNA strands.) Repeated over and over, the machine can create millions of testable samples very quickly.

The birthplace of polymerase
The birthplace of polymerase: the hot springs of Yellowstone.
Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images

This freshly-copied batch of DNA is placed in a refrigerator-sized machine called a 3500 Genetic Analyzer, a fluorescence-based instrument that determines the length of the DNA and the sequence of its As, Cs, Ts, and Gs. Within 20 to 120 minutes, the results appear on a computer screen in the form of a cragged graph, with wobbly peaks and valleys.

“The DNA really can’t be found unless you know what you’re looking for,” Lansky explains. “And we’re the only ones who know what to look for.”

On the day I visited, the team wasn't analyzing guitars. Instead, they were looking at cotton samples that claimed to be 100 percent pure extra-long staple, or ELS. I'm told the cotton supply chain is messy: A puffball may grow in California, be ginned in Arkansas, be woven in India, be dyed in Egypt, and then return to multiple warehouses in the United States for distribution. Each step is an opportunity for the “100 percent cotton” to become corrupted. (With sometimes horrifying results: In 2014, Italian police seized more than a million products from a company claiming to make “100 percent cashmere.” The products contained rat fur.)

Wan stands before the computer and points to the graph. To me, it’s just squiggles. She might as well have been showing me the latest stock market results. But to her eyes, it’s a damning fingerprint: She compares the contours to the peaks and valleys expected of 100 percent pure cotton. The lines don’t match.

Turns out, it's less than 80 percent ELS cotton—evidence that somebody adulterated the sample somewhere along the supply chain.

Wan smirks and says, “And that's the reason we like to say: DNA is truth."

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