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After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the federal government approached Vaughn Bryant to, as he put it in a recent email, help “identify and find the terrorists involved.” Bryant, the director of the palynology laboratory at Texas A&M University, is an unusual man. He’s investigated the origins of counterfeit honey; he’s even traced the first recorded kiss to India, in approximately 1500 B.C. He agreed to work for the government in a part-time capacity, and in 2010 he began doing forensic pollen studies, mostly of illegal drug shipments, but also on “persons of interest” caught by the Department of Homeland Security.
Bryant’s work was successful enough that DHS wanted a full-time forensic palynologist. Bryant trained his student, Andrew Laurence, who was hired by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in 2011, while still in grad school and at work on his dissertation. (U.S. Customs and Border Protection falls under the umbrella of DHS.)
The work, as Laurence describes it, is mindboggling. There are 380,000 different species of plants on the planet, each with its own unique pollen type. As Laurence put it, “Plant composition changes depending on where you are. Even if the same types of plants are growing in different areas, the abundance of each plant may be different. For example one place may have 70 percent pine, 20 percent oak, and 10 percent grass while another area may have 40 percent pine, 40 percent oak, and 20 percent grass. Same plants, different composition.” For example, he said, “in the United States, the number of pine trees relative to other plants decreases traveling east to west as the Eastern Woodlands transitions into the Temperate Grasslands.”
Each region has its own unique pollen print generated from those plants. “Think of it,” says Laurence, “as a fingerprint for a region.” And it’s a relatively indestructible fingerprint. Even if you put clothes through a washing machine, a pollen print remains.
It’s all quite seductive. It’s for good reason that forensic palynology—the use of pollen and spores to solve criminal or civil cases—is not exactly obscure. It has played a recurring role on crime shows (Bones, for example); it was pivotal to the widely-publicized investigation of Ötzi the Iceman, and it even helped to convict Bosnian war criminals. As an investigative tool, forensic palynology has proven its use for decades.
Why, then, is 29-year-old Laurence the only full-time forensic pollen analyst in the United States? It’s not as if he can’t use some assistance. When asked how many cases, ranging from smuggling to homicide, he’s worked on during his three and half years of full-time employment with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Laurence said, “Oh, geez. Hundreds? At least 160.”
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The most famous forensic-palynology case, and one that Laurence looks to as a landmark, is the first. In 1959, in Austria, a man disappeared and, despite the lack of a body, was presumed murdered. The investigators had little physical evidence, but they had a suspect with a muddy pair of boots. As recounted in Criminal Psychology and Forensic Technology, a local palynologist found in the boots a 20-million-year-old fossil of hickory pollen, from a tree that no longer grew in Austria. But there was a small area, on the Danube River, where the pollen grain had been absorbed into the environment. Presented with this information, the suspect disclosed the whereabouts of the body.