Western Carolina University’s Forensic Science Program recently assisted Great Smoky Mountains National Park with rapid response DNA testing following an incident of a black bear biting a man.

WCU scientists conducted lab tests to determine if any bear found in the proximity of the Tuesday, May 10, attack scene was the bear that actually inflicted the injuries. The desire to avoid the unnecessary killing of wildlife while balancing public safety is an important issue for the nation’s most visited national park. On average, park officials euthanize fewer than three bears a year in circumstances where human safety is threatened.

“Our park staff have worked diligently over the last year to develop new processes that allow us to minimize the possibility of euthanizing an uninvolved bear following an attack,” said Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash. “We are glad to now have these new options afforded by quick DNA turnaround at WCU that allow us the opportunity to consider holding a bear while waiting for analysis.”

Maureen Hickman

Maureen Hickman

An optimized DNA testing protocol developed by Maureen Peters Hickman and Brittania Bintz, program forensic research scientists, can be delivered and completed in a day or two, as compared to samples being shipped to other labs and an extended wait time. A 400-pound bear was euthanized near where the attack occurred. Park officials cited the remote location, the size and gender of the bear, and that it was the only bear present and was aggressive and made repeated attempts to enter the hiker’s tent. WCU’s DNA tests determined it was not involved in the attack. Two smaller bears were darted, then outfitted with tracking collars and released, and DNA showed neither was responsible for the attack.

The 49-year-old Appalachian Trail hiker was camping for the night in a remote section of the park when a bear ripped through the man’s tent and bit his leg. He was transported to a local hospital, treated and released.

WCU’s Forensic Science Program has cutting-edge research facilities that follow the design of crime labs nationwide, featuring advanced analytical instrumentation.

Brittania Bintz

Brittania Bintz

“Recently, the Forensic Science Program has extended use of its facilities to service those outside of the forensics community, as is evidenced by our partnership with the GSMNP following the recent bear attack,” said Hickman. “We also host a variety of regional middle and high school groups who come through for a tour of the lab and, usually, a forensic-related lab activity.” The program has already hosted six school groups since the beginning of the year with more scheduled to visit this summer.

The program has partnered with government agencies such as the FBI, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as nonprofit organizations such as Battelle Memorial Institute, to lead the charge in integrating Next-Generation Sequencing into today’s crime laboratories.

With three Next-Generation Sequencing instruments, the program has worked to test and validate these emerging technologies for use in crime investigations. Representatives from the lab routinely present their research findings at international forensic science conferences.

WCU will host its first ever Next Generation Sequencing workshop on Thursday, Aug 11. For more information, go to http://www.wcu.edu/engage/community-resources/profdev/MPS.asp.