Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy for the forensic analysis of vaginal fluid
Zegarelli, Kathryn Anne
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Vaginal fluid is most often found at crime scenes where a sexual assault has taken place or on clothing or other items collected from sexual assault victims or perpetrators. Because the victim is generally known in these cases, detection of vaginal fluid is not a matter of individual identification, as it might be for semen identification. Instead, linkages can be made between victim and suspect if the sexual assault was carried out digitally or with a foreign object (e.g., bottle, pool cue, cigarette, handle of a hammer or other tool, etc.). If such an object is only analyzed for DNA and the victim is identified, the suspect may claim that the victim’s DNA is present because she handled and/or is the owner of the object and not because it was used to sexually assault her; identification of vaginal fluid residue would alleviate such uncertainty. Most of the research conducted thus far regarding methods for the identification of vaginal fluid involves mRNA biomarkers and identification of various bacterial strains.1-3 However, these approaches require extensive sample preparation and laboratory analysis and have not fully explored the genomic differences among all body fluid RNAs. No existing methods of vaginal fluid identification incorporate both high specificity and rapid analysis.4 Therefore, a new rapid detection method is required. Surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS) is an emerging technique with high sensitivity for the forensic analysis of various body fluids. This technique has the potential to improve current vaginal fluid identification techniques due to its ease-of-use, rapid analysis time, portability, and non-destructive nature. For this experiment, all vaginal fluid samples were collected from anonymous donors by saturation of a cotton swab via vaginal insertion. Samples were analyzed on gold nanoparticle chips.4 This nanostructured metal substrate is essential for the large signal-enhancement effect of SERS and also quenches any background fluorescence that sometimes interferes with normal Raman spectroscopy measurements.5 Vaginal fluid SERS signal variation of a single sample over a six-month period was evaluated under both ambient and frozen storage conditions. Vaginal fluid samples were also taken from 10 individuals over the course of a single menstrual cycle. Four samples collected at one-week intervals were obtained from each individual and analyzed using SERS. The SERS vaginal fluid signals showed very little variation as a function of time and storage conditions, indicating that the spectral pattern of vaginal fluid is not likely to change over time. The samples analyzed over the span of one menstrual cycle showed slight intra-donor differences, however, the overall spectral patterns remained consistent and reproducible. When cycle spectra were compared between individuals, very little donor-to-donor variation was observed indicating the potential for a universal vaginal fluid signature spectrum. A cross-validated, partial least squares – discriminant analysis (PLS-DA) model was built to classify all body fluids, where vaginal fluid was identified with 95.0% sensitivity and 96.6% specificity, which indicates that the spectral pattern of vaginal fluid was successfully distinguished from semen and blood. Thus, SERS has a high potential for application in the field of forensic science for vaginal fluid analysis.