NYC's DNA crime lab can analyze anything we touch

Fox 5 got an exclusive look inside the largest DNA crime lab in North America. It is found New York City's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in the Kips Bay section of Manhattan.

In this dry, sterile facility with purified air pumped in, the scientists handle more than 14,000 cases a year—everything from muggings to murders to mass casualty tragedies.

DNA extraction and separation is done by robots using specialized equipment. New technological advancements give the scientists the ability to extract DNA from fewer and fewer cells, even with no body fluids. That is called touch DNA.

Mark Desire, assistant director for forensic biology at OCME, said that we leave behind our DNA every time we touch something.

Samples can come from clothing or objects connected with the crime. All evidence collection follows strict legal protocols.

Desire said that police and crime scene technicians place evidence in special bags, which are sealed for protection during transport to the OCME. The lab then generates DNA profiles from samples that may be on the evidence. Desire said that DNA, including touch DNA, has been a game changer in solving sexual assaults.

In the crime scope room, scientists use a blue light and special glasses to locate any body fluids on evidence. Forensic investigators analyze samples and extract data that can be used by detectives to compare to DNA on file from previous crimes.

Desire said that the real power of DNA profiling comes from comparing data to known samples from suspects and victims.

DNA is can be destroyed by heat, humidity, and other environmental factors. Desire said that 9/11 presented an unprecedented challenge that drove him and his team beyond the latest technology and became a personal mission to find answers for grieving families. He said many of the samples collected at Ground Zero were very badly degraded. Many victims left behind no analyzable DNA at all.

He said at the other extreme is the DNA we leave behind everywhere all day long, from a discarded coffee cup to a doorknob grab to everything and everyone we lightly touch. That is enough now to generate an unmistakable DNA profile.

The DNA testing goes on 24/7 all year long. The lab staff will never stop searching for answers, including for the families of the 9/11 victims.

CORRECTION: The text corrects the name of the OCME official interviewed. He is Mark Desire, assistant director for forensic biology at OCME, not Timothy Kupferschmid, the chief of laboratories.