Mitochondrial DNA in wildlife forensic science: Species identification of tissues

Wildlife Society Bulletin

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A common problem in wildlife law enforcement is identifying the species of origin of carcasses, meat, or blood when morphological characters such as hair or bones are not available. Immunological and protein electrophoretic (allozyme or general protein) procedures have been used in species identification with considerable success (Bunch et al. 1976, McClymont et al. 1982, Wolfe 1983, Mardini 1984, Pex and Wolfe 1985, Dratch 1986), However, immunological tests often are not sensitive enough to distinguish closely related species. Furthermore, electrophoretically detectable protein polymorphisms may be lacking in certain populations or species and may not be species-specific.

Analysis of DNA in human and wildlife forensics has been shown to be a potentially powerful tool for identification of individuals (Jeffreys et al. 1985, Vassartet al. 1987, Thommasen et al. 1989). Differences in copy number and nucleotide sequence of repetitive sequences in the nuclear (chromosomal) DNA result in hypervariability and individual-specific patterns which have been termed DNA "fingerprints." However, these patterns may be too variable for species identification necessitating analyses of more conservative parts of the genome.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is haploid, maternally inherited, similar in nucleotide sequence among conspecifics from the same geographic region, and more suitable for species identification, in contrast to hypervariable DNA fingerprints. MtDNA has several characteristics which make it useful as a species-specific marker. In mammals, individuals have a single mtDNA genotype shared by all tissues. Because mtDNA is haploid and reflects only maternal ancestry, the mtDNA gene number in a population is 4 times less than the nuclear gene number (Birky et al. 1983). This can result in relatively rapid loss or fixation of mtDNA genotypes so that all individuals in a population may be descended from a single ancestral female in as few as 4N (N = population size) generations (Avise et al., 1984). This suggests there is great potential for identification of species-specific or population-specific mtDNA genotypes, Within species, mtDNA genotypes are thought to be selectively neutral, i.e., there is little evidence that genotypes differ in fitness (Nigro and Prout 1990).

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Journal Article
Mitochondrial DNA in wildlife forensic science: Species identification of tissues
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Wildlife Society Bulletin
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Contributing office(s):
Alaska Science Center, Alaska Biological Science Center
12 p.
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