WHITESTOWN — The Oneida County Sheriff’s Office has a new device for collecting DNA evidence at a crime scene: a DNA vacuum that the manufacturer compares to a carpet cleaner.
Called the M-Vac, the new device will increase the quantity of DNA collected using more efficient technology than current forensic methods, which are often conducted by hand. The M-Vac does not test the DNA, authorities said. That will still be done in forensic laboratories.
“Essentially, it works just like a carpet cleaner. It sprays the solution down and vacuums up the DNA,” explained Jared Bradley, president of M-Vac Systems Inc.
“It gets down into the nooks and crannies where the DNA might be hiding.”
Traditionally, crime scene DNA is collected by hand, wherein an investigator uses a special solution and a cotton swab to scrap DNA off the surface of a piece of evidence. While this method is sufficient, officials said it can only test the surface of a piece of evidence for DNA. And if they try to swab too much surface area, they end up simply spreading the DNA around with the swab, Bradley explained.
The new M-Vac uses a suction wand to create a vacuum seal around a section of evidence, and then simultaneously sprays solution and sucks it back up, near instantly collecting the DNA, Bradley said. And because of the vacuum seal, the M-Vac can be used on a larger surface area than the traditional cotton swab.
Bradley said the machine was invented by his father, a microbiologist.
“He recognized that you need to be constantly collecting with new solution,” Bradley explained.
The mechanical spray and suction of the testing solution also allows the machine to collect DNA from deeper into the evidence than a surface swabbing, he said. Bradley used a brick to demonstrate the machine’s capabilities during a presentation at the Sheriff’s Office on Thursday.
“That brick looks fairly smooth, but to a cell, it’s the Grand Canyon,” he stated, referring to the porous nature of the brick on the microscopic level, where traditional DNA swabbing couldn’t reach.
Sheriff Robert M. Maciol said on Thursday, Oct. 24 that his office has been trying to obtain an M-Vac for years, and they finally had enough money leftover in the 2019 budget to warrant the purchase. The machine cost $43,662.
“We’re very fortunate to be able to acquire one of these,” Maciol said. “This is a piece of equipment that only exists in one other law enforcement agency in the state” — that being the Onondaga County Sheriff’s Office.
Maciol said the M-Vac will be “key to our forensics unit”, and is expected to be used heavily by the Child Advocacy Center investigating sex crimes. He added that other local agencies can request the use of the M-Vac if they so choose.
Bradley said his father developed the technology following a large E. coli outbreak in 1993. They initially tried to sell the M-Vac to the meat industry, but he said they were rejected because the machine was too sensitive in what it picked up. Bradley said a chance encounter with a friend in law enforcement led to a “light bulb” idea to use the machine to collect DNA evidence.
Since 2012, he said they have been doing more and more research and testing, slowly building the confidence of law enforcement agencies across the world. They’ve even managed to solve old cold cases, he said, including one that was 39-years-old.
“DNA degrades over time, but it has to be exposed to the elements,” Bradley stated. If DNA evidence is properly stored, it can last decades, and the M-Vac can still collect new samples from the old evidence, he said.