The secret hidden in dust: Assessing the potential to use biological and chemical properties of the airborne fraction of soil for provenance assignment and forensic casework

Nicole R. Foster, Duncan Taylor, Jurian Hoogewerff, Michael G. Aberle, Patrice de Caritat, Paul Roffey, Robert Edwards, Arif Malik, Michelle Waycott, Jennifer M. Young

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Abstract

The airborne fraction of soil (dust) is both ubiquitous in nature and contains localised biological and chemical signatures, making it a potential medium for forensic intelligence. Metabarcoding of dust can yield biological communities unique to the site of interest, similarly, geochemical analyses can uncover elements and minerals within dust that can be matched to a geographic location. Combining these analyses presents multiple lines of evidence as to the origin of dust collected from items of interest. In this work, we investigated whether bacterial and fungal communities in dust change through time and whether they are comparable to soil samples of the same site. We integrated dust metabarcoding into a framework amenable to forensic casework, (i.e., using calibrated log-likelihood ratios) to predict the origin of dust samples using models constructed from both dust samples and soil samples from the same site. Furthermore, we tested whether both metabarcoding and geochemical/mineralogical analyses could be conducted on a single swabbed sample, for situations where sampling is limited. We found both analyses could generate results from a single swabbed sample and found biological and chemical signatures unique to sites. However, we did find significant variation within sites, where this did not always correlate with time but was a random effect of sampling. This variation within sites was not greater than between sites and so did not influence site discrimination. When modelling bacterial and fungal diversity using calibrated log-likelihood ratios, we found samples were correctly predicted using dust 67% and 56% of the time and using soil 56% and 22% of the time for bacteria and fungi communities respectively. Incorrect predictions were related to within site variability, highlighting limitations to assigning dust provenance using metabarcoding of soil.

Original languageEnglish
Article number102931
Number of pages11
JournalForensic Science International: Genetics
Volume67
Early online date22 Aug 2023
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2023

Keywords

  • Dust
  • Environmental DNA
  • Forensic biology
  • Metabarcoding
  • Trace DNA

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