In years past, certain types of forensic evidence from Canadian crime scenes, such as hair and bone, were frequently sent to the United States for a specialized type of genetic testing to help identify their owner. Since Molecular World Inc. came to town however, much of that has changed.
The Thunder Bay facility regularly handles casework from crime scenes across Canada and the U.S., with Dr. Amarjit Chahal, its lab director and general manager, often speaking at various trial proceedings as an expert witness on the subject.
Founded in 1998 by Dr. El Molto and brought up to full functionality in 2003, Molecular World is the only private Canadian DNA testing facility accredited to handle various sample types through the use of three separate testing methods.
Work which typically requires two to four years to achieve, was completed in a single year, a feat which Chahal attributes to concentrated hard work, and the experience he has gained from handling over 7,000 cases.
However, the company's specialty and its unique point of pride is its ability to conduct mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) testing.
"Before Molecular World, there was no accredited lab for mtDNA testing in Canada," says Chahal.
Forensic testing typically involves one of two types, the first and most popular being nuclear DNA testing. Although this particular type is incredibly useful and is seen as the conventional method, its usefulness is limited in certain situations where there is a lower level of the genetic material needed to identify the owner. According to Chahal, this is where mtDNA testing comes in, as it allows for a greater range of genetic detection.
"Shed hairs hardly have any nuclear DNA, so the only option is mtDNA testing," he says, adding that ‘ancient’ material such as bones, skeletal remains and teeth, also must be tested in this fashion.
"If the police find some hairs at a crime scene, they will send it to us."
As government labs are not currently handling this sort of testing, Chahal says that Molecular World is not in competition with them, nor is it seeking to replace them as a be-all, end-all source for testing.
"We offer a complementary service," he says. "We work with the government, not against it. We have a good mix."
This strength as a niche service has netted the company a number of contracts from a variety of clients such as the OPP, the RCMP, and a variety of municipal police services such as the Thunder Bay Police. Molecular World has also seen a variety of international contracts, including a number of American law enforcement agencies, as well as one from Malta.
The company's services are not restricted to criminal investigations. Relationship testing is also becoming a growing focus. The facility frequently handles different types of related work, ranging from testing for Canadian immigration purposes, to simple paternity and maternity tests.
Chahal also points out that Molecular World is capable of issuing what he refers to as a DNA Photo ID, and while it isn't considered to be legal identification, it can prove handy in the instance where one's remains need to be quickly identified.
The card removes the need to track down relatives to find comparison DNA samples, which can be especially problematic if no relatives exist or if there are no nearby personal effects to give some idea as to the person's identity.
"It is like a driver's license and it has a DNA type on it," says Chahal. "This becomes handy for people who do high-risk jobs such as pilots or mining, or any other risky environment where there might be difficulty in identifying the body. It would also help in a situation where there is a natural disaster such as a tsunami or hurricane."
With the growing level of investment being made by governments and private companies in medically-related endeavours within the Thunder Bay region, Chahal says that Molecular World can play a part in the area's economic revitalization.