Spicing up fingerprints
4th June 2013
It is most commonly used to spice up Indian cuisine, but scientists at Sheffield Hallam University have discovered turmeric could be used to help solve crimes.
Researchers at the University's Biomedical Research Centre have found that the gold-coloured powder can highlight fingerprints at crime scenes and can detect key characteristics of a suspect such as traces of drug abuse. After close analysis of the spice's main ingredient, curcumin, scientists found that the molecule shares the same structural characteristics as the chemicals used in Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Ionization (MALDI) technology - a technique that allows scientists to detect and identify different molecules on surfaces. The crime scene is dusted in curcumin to highlight the fingerprints and the sample can then be lifted and sent to mass spectrometry researchers who can determine the presence of various fatty acids, drugs and other molecules. The findings can then be passed onto crime scene investigators for forensic evidence. Dr Simona Francese at Sheffield Hallam's Biomedical Research Centre, said: "Turmeric has been used to treat a variety of medical conditions from colds to tumours but to be used to enhance fingerprints, I initially thought that it was just amusing. But then, the more I thought about it and the more I looked into the curcumin molecular structure, the more interested I became. "With a finger-mark, the idea was around looking at whether or not we could replace the MALDI matrix that we were using with curcumin. I thought this would be very advantageous because curcumin behaves as a dual agent - a finger-mark enhancer and a MALDI matrix." The chemical agents commonly used to visualise fingerprints can sometimes interfere with analysis however, the new findings suggests that using turmeric could overcome these issues. Dr Francese said: "When the team compared the performances of the classical matrix and curcumin we found that in some cases curcumin outperforms the classic matrix and it seems to be more efficient at enhancing finger-marks." "It's amazing that one single compound can be used in so many different ways and then to find that this compound can be used for this kind of purpose, it made me even more excited and this is why we trialled it. Sometimes, we use all these complicated products but quite often, the answer is so simple." Dr Francese's work has been acknowledged in the Home Office's manual for fingerprint development as having the potential to be used effectively in the crime fighting industry. But the challenge now is to gain enough funding to be able to evidence its effectiveness in order to introduce this method of fingerprint analysis. A research paper around this study has now been published on Analytical Chemistry.