UW biostatistics professor in the hunt for ivory poachers

September 24, 2018

UW Biostatistics Professor Bruce Weir is among the co-authors of a recently published paper that details how researchers used DNA-based sample matching of confiscated elephant tusks to reveal trafficking supply chains and link ivory shipments to a network of dealers. 

“We reveal connections between what would otherwise be isolated ivory seizures — linking seizures not just to specific criminal networks operating in these ports, but to poaching and transport networks that funnel the tusks hundreds of miles to these cartels,” said lead and corresponding author Samuel Wasser, director of the UW Center for Conservation Biology and a professor of biology at the UW.

Weir has worked with Wasser for several years on his use of DNA to identify seized elephant tusks. For this study, Weir’s work focused on the statistical analysis. He showed how to compute the probabilities of matching tusks from different seizures, taking into account the complexities of genetic structure of elephant populations and of relatedness among poached elephants.

“This is part of my broad interest in forensic genetics,” said Weir who has three graduate students working on related topics, including the interpretation of Y-chromosome matching, the analysis of DNA evidence involving multiple contributors, and using modern DNA sequence data for forensic identification.

Weir also teaches a course that introduces the field of forensic genetics through discussion of high-profile cases that have involved DNA profiling, including the recent Golden State Killer case. In the class, students develop skills to interpret the evidence of matching genetic profiles, perform calculations relevant for parentage determination, identify remains, and consider the implications of familial searching of DNA databases.

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