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NMSU will soon be home to elite Forensic Testing Laboratories

A quiet corner of New Mexico State University could soon become a hub for scientific criminal investigation. Forensic Testing Laboratories is already up and running at NMSU's Arrowhead Genesis Center, but a certification later this year could send the operation into overdrive.



DNA analyst Tamar Powell demonstrates laboratory sample analysis procedures. (NMSU Photo by Darren Phillips)

FTL is a sister company to the Genetics Testing Laboratories, a DNA-testing business spun off from NMSU in 2005 and still partially owned by the university. GTL has become very successful, handling nearly 3,000 cases a month. While they conduct a wide variety of tests, the bulk of their business is determining paternity. Both companies, FTL and GTL, share almost two dozen employees, including two NMSU students.

"The Forensic Testing Laboratories will go beyond rudimentary DNA testing," said Heather Overton, laboratory supervisor for both FTL and GTL. "We will be able to use mitochondrial testing to test a single strand of hair, bones or even cremated bone dust. We'll be able to assist in rape and homicide investigations. We'll be one of only eight or nine facilities in the nation certified to do this kind of testing."

FTL has already helped the Dona Ana County Sheriff's Office with cases, including the Katie Sepich murder investigation. Sepich was a former NMSU student killed in 2003. Her case was solved in 2007 with the help of DNA evidence.

"There is definitely more of a demand for forensic testing," Overton said. "Many states have a backlog in their crime labs and many local communities don't have access to this kind of facility. There is also the fact that many lawyers, jurors and others in the criminal justice field want to see DNA evidence."

Currently, GTL finds most of its paternity customers through the Internet. It also works in conjunction with certified brokers throughout the world. Other services include DNA ancestry testing, missing parent DNA testing and grandparent, aunt or uncle testing.

"There is a human element to what we do," Overton said. "Emotions run high, especially when it comes to what we are testing. We have to remain objective."

Overton says the genetic testing industry has grown dramatically over the last few years thanks to a steady stream of child custody cases, adoption issues and the popularity of paternity testing on talk shows like "The Maury Povich Show." "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation"-style television shows that feature lab testing have also helped to make the public more aware of DNA and related testing.

"People graduating from NMSU don't need to move away to work in a state-of-the-art lab," Overton said. "They can stay here - there is a need for it."