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Indian Botanists Blog-o-Journal

Year 2014
Forensic Botany: An Emerging Discipline of Plant Sciences
Rabish Chandra*1 and Vinny Sharma2
1Central Excise Officer, Central Excise Customs and Service Tax, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu
(*Views expressed herein are personal)
Research Scholar, Department of Anthropology, University of Delhi, Delhi-110007

How to cite this article

Chandra, R., Sharma, V., (2014), Forensic Botany: An Emerging Discipline of Plant Sciences. Indian
Botanists Blog-o-Journal. http://www.indianbotanists.com/2014/03/forensic-botany-emerging-

ABSTRACT: Various disciplines have emerged due to vast expansion in the studies of plant
sciences. Discovery of new methods, protocols and analytical techniques facilitates for
thorough and deep study of the given subject. One among many disciplines which has
appeared as an offshoot from basic plant science is forensic botany. Forensic botany is an
interdisciplinary area where the knowledge of botany is applied to solve the crime. This paper
introduces about the basic of the subject explaining various sub-disciplines and its application
in forensic science. It also cites some cases where botanical evidences have been the part of

Plants since the beginning of Forensic Botany is defined as the

human existence have played important use of plant evidence in court. In other
role in their civilizations. They have been words, examination of plant materials or
used as both weapons and protector. The remains collected at a crime scene and
role of plants as evidence for solving the using them to solve crimes or other legal
criminal cases though is comparatively problems may be loosely termed as
new. It was only after 1932 when during Forensic Botany. Forensic botany can
the trial of Lindbergh kidnapping case the play a valuable role in criminal
botanical evidences were accepted investigations, but it has been underused
(Graham, 1997) and the judgement was because of the lack of botanical
made based on them the plants were knowledge among most people involved in
recognised as crime solvers. This case criminal investigations. Although forensic
marked the birth of Forensic Botany. botany has been underused in criminal
investigations over the years, resourceful
The term Forensic comes from the investigators and scientists with initiative
Latin word ‘forensis’ meaning “of or for are beginning to change this.
the forum”. Forensic Science is often
defined as the application of scientific Forensic Botany is subdivided into
methods and techniques for the purposes several specialities of botanical fields like,
of justice. Forensic Science has been plant taxonomy, palynology, plant
branched into various headings viz. ecology, limnology etc. and more recently
forensic biology, forensic anthropology, molecular plant biology. Forensic botany
forensic chemistry, forensic physics, is useful in the examination of gastric
forensic botany, forensic entomology, contents in homicide victims. It can help
forensic serology, etc. determine the contents and location of a
Indian Botanists Blog-o-Journal Chandra & Sharma, 2014 2

victim's last meal. If a victim has been ecological sciences, knowledge of

moved from the location of death, plant vegetation, soil sediments, aquatic and
analysis can determine whether plant terrestrial habitats are some essential
remnants on the body are characteristic areas for investigations (Whiltshire, 2009).
of the vegetation where the body was Individual may develop an interest and
found or of some other location where the subsequent expertise in any specific area.
victim was killed. Finding of clandestine The study of the structural and functional
graves requires the expertise of plant interrelationships of organisms of inland
ecologists who can recognize localized, waters as they are affected by their
unusual areas of plant succession. dynamic physical, chemical and biotic
environments is called limnology. Though
This paper is an attempt by the limnology involves the study of both
authors to discuss different sub- freshwater and saline inland water,
disciplines of forensic botany with some freshwater bodies are of more importance
suitable illustrations. Also the authors to human activities (Wetzel, 2001). Thus
have attempted to present a few forensic limnology is more concern to
interesting cases in which botanical freshwater ecology.
evidence have been the part of
judgements. Various cases exemplify the
applicability of plant ecology to forensic
MAJOR SUBDISCIPLINES OF investigation. In one case, victim was
FORENSIC BOTANY brutally attacked to death and was
drowned into a nearby pond. Fortunately
Ecology and Limnology the accompanied person with victim
managed to escape and informed to the
Ecology is the branch of biology immediate possible option. Investigators
that deals with the relations of organisms resumed water soaked, mud encrusted
to one another and to their physical footwear and clothing from the
surroundings. When we take plant apprehended suspect. Investigators also
ecology, it includes the distribution obtained samples of pond water
abundance of plants in a region, their sediments and aquatic vegetation from
effects upon environmental factor and the pond aiming to establish the linkage
interactions among and between plants between the clothing of suspects, victims
and other organisms. Knowledge of and pond biota. Investigators with the
ecology is useful for the forensic basic ecological application and certain
investigators in determining the relation liminological tests established the linkage.
of victims, crime scene and suspects. As a Numerous species of diatoms and
forensic ecologist one need to know planktonic algae were recovered from the
several things in relation to ecology. Not, victims and suspects clothing and
only the structure of plants but also their reference samples of pond sediments
natural and semi natural habitat, biotic (Siver et al., 1994).
and a-biotic component of the habitat,
how one species affect others, their Horton et al., (2006) developed a
possible and probable time of abundance, quantitative diatom based reconstruction
growth, structure and overall functions. technique to confirm drowning as cause of
Apart from these, forensic ecologists are death and localise the site of drowning.
expected to know about garden and They collected samples from the
gardening too. They are required to keep local/regional water bodies to act as
the knowledge of plantation parks, ponds, control in the examination of diatom
canals, road-sides verges hedge rows and assemblages associated with lungs and
wastelands. Though forensic ecologists clothing of the subject.
cannot be an expert in every aspect of
Forensic Botany: An Emerging Discipline Chandra & Sharma, 2014 3

Palynology contains pollen grains proved the sexual

assault taking place in alleyway, the
Palynology is the branch of botany that suspect was convicted later on the basis
deals with the study of pollen grains, their of this evidence.
shape, size, structure, origin, etc.
Forensic palynology involves the solving of
criminal cases with the help of Anatomy
identification of pollen grains and spores.
Pollen grains being smaller in size are not The construction of plant’s body
seen by the culprit and thus remain at and its components can provide a wide
the crime scene helping the investigator to variety of forensic evidences. The rigid
solve the crime. Pollen grains also help in external cell wall covering the plant cells,
fixing the location of the crime as certain unlike the animal cells, does not allow the
plants are found in particular regions and plant cells to wash away or degenerate
identification of their pollens and spores easily. The varying percentage of cellulose
determine the location of the crime and lignin making up the cell wall are not
occurred. Pollen grains are microscopic digestible by animals except ruminants,
and not visually obvious trace evidence termites and a few other anthropods as
during crime scene collection but are far as cellulose is concerned whereas with
retained on clothing, embedded in lignin it is somewhat more difficult to
carpets, pervasive in soil, etc. Pollen grain digest due to its being more complex
morphology can be used to identify a structurally and chemically which can be
plant genus and often the species. broken down only by a few fungi. In
addition to this, cells that make up wood
have a secondary wall that has much
Crime scenes which are restricted to a higher percentage of lignin, which adds on
smaller, such as a rape scene, are good to the strength and long life of these cells,
choices for pollen evidence. Generally proof of which stands tall with the wooden
areas have a specific pollen distribution churches of Norway which were built
pattern representing the combination of during the end of the eleventh century
plant species found in the surrounding and the still remain standing and are in
vegetation. Forensically, the pollen grains use.
which are commonly found hold less
evidentiary value than those which are In forensic science, the
uncommon, or belong to the species identification of wood is done on the basis
which is poorly distributed. of the physical and anatomical properties
of wood. Physical properties include
In a case reported in Auckland, New
colour, odour, weight, hardness, lustre
Zealand, a woman alleged that the
and texture of the wood sample. Also, the
suspect had raped her in an alleyway few
water extract of some timbers show
meters away from his car. While the
distinct fluorescence which helps in
suspect claimed that he never moved
identifying the unknown wood samples.
away from his car and nor did he entered
Anatomical properties include whether
the mentioned alleyway. Adding to this he
the pores are present or absent and if
strongly pointed out that he had never
present then the further identification s
had any sexual intercourse with the
done on determining the pore number,
victim and the soil found on his clothes is
pore size and pore arrangement.
from the driveway area. During the
investigation the officials collected the soil The manner in which cell walls are laid
samples from both the mentioned areas down and the patterns formed by cells are
and also from the suspects’ clothes. The peculiar to given taxonomic groups. The
analysis of soil samples which also herbaceous (non woody) plants have
Indian Botanists Blog-o-Journal Chandra & Sharma, 2014 4

characteristic cell shapes, sculpturing of Interval of some human skeletal remains

the cell walls, arrangements of cells of the that were found in a wooded area near
epidermis, and combinations of cell types Perugia, in Central Italy.
in their pulpy parts. Some cells contain
crystals of calcium oxalate or starch Forensic Plant Biotechnology
grains of types that vary among species.
Identification of starch grains is based on Plant Biotechnology in recent few decades
three characteristics – size, shape, and has emerged as an exciting area of plant
presence or absence as well as shape of sciences. Through this technology various
markings on the starch grains called the biological manipulation and interpretation
hilum. Identification of starch grain is can be done (Chawla, 2002). Techniques
easy on freshly prepared starch. In old like DNA fingerprinting, DNA barcoding,
starch or boiled starch or chemically Molecular markers are extensively used
modified starch the hilum change from these days by investigators to solve the
dot to transverse or transverse to satellite cases. In forensic botany it is mainly used
and satellite to ruptured grain. Thus, too for species identification, endemism of the
much reliance should not be placed on subject plant.
hilum unless history of starch is known.
During the course of plant species
Comparison of unknown sample with
identification in the field for general
known sample is always desirable. In case
academic purposes one gathers maximum
of decomposed starches identification
morphological character in the field note
should be based on few grains which are
book to identify the plant up-to species
left intact.
level. Unlike the conventional taxonomic
In forensic work, plant parts specifically identification the morphological character
adapted for dispersal can be particularly is limited in forensic investigation, plant
useful. As plant species are each best species found as evidence material are in
suited to a particular set of environmental fragment and in such instances
conditions, not all species grow identification of the species with the
everywhere. Plant species occur in convention available key in any flora
association, or communities, whereas the becomes difficult. Though DNA barcoding
environmental requirements of several is one option but it has limited scope in
species overlap. Anatomical knowledge plant science as there is no gene in the
about species can be useful forensically, plant which can be the barcode unlike in
because a botanist can identify plant animal where the mitochondrial
fragments found on the clothing of a cytochrome c oxidase I has become
victim, and can determine whether those universal barcode. In these
plants came from the site in which the circumstances one has to depend on the
victim was found or from some other area. biotechnological tools such as ‘Short
Tandem Repeats (STRs)’, ‘Single
Correct identification of plant samples Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNPs),
depends on trained botanists’ abilities to ‘Simple Sequence Repeats (SSRs),
gain access to recorded information on Variable Number Tandem Repeats
the characteristics of the species to which (VNTRs) (Zaya & Mary, 2012) . Discussing
the sample belongs. Therefore, anyone details of these techniques may be out of
who identifies a new sample of plants scope of this article. One can find more
must publish the contents as all about techniques in ‘Plant DNA
information is needed and is can help in Fingerprinting and Barcoding; Methods
solving the criminal cases. Lancia & and Protocols. Methods in Molecular
Conforti (2013) studied the growth rate of Biology’ edited by Sucher et.al., (2012).
the bryophyte Leptodyctium riparium, was
used in estimating the Post Mortem
Forensic Botany: An Emerging Discipline Chandra & Sharma, 2014 5

Eurlings et.al., (2013) has reported analyze sequence data using broad array
forensic identification of Rauvolfia sp. of information tools.
using DNA bar coding technique which
can be used to control illegal international When the crime has taken place in
trade as manually the root samples grassland vegetation, grasses are
cannot be identified at species level. preferred to as trace evidences to solve the
Gilmore et.al., (2003) diagnosed profile of case. Database ‘Gramene’
93 cannabis plants (Cannabis sativa) (www.gramene.org) may be used for a
using STRs. Bryophytes can be wise comparative analysis. It is a comparative
choice for forensic investigation in a case genome mapping database for grasses.
where the criminals walk in a forest or Though mainly for rice, it uses rice as a
semi urban area and bryophytes framework genome to organise
fragments get attached to shoes even after information for other grass species
a wearer walks for several hours. Also (Doreen et.al., 2002). Botanists at the
DNA of bryophytes stays intact in Australian National University, Canberra
fluctuating environment which allows developed a molecular identification
DNA profiling for evidence (Virtanen et. database for the identification of hundred
al., 2007). Australian grasses. The identification
system is built on a phylo-genetically
Hence one can apply various tools of sound framework and consists a series of
biotechnology in multidimensional taxon specific PCR assays for the
forensic analysis and evidence. progressive identification of grass samples
and thus claiming it as a novel technology
Bioinformatics and Forensic for forensic botany (Ward et.al., 2005,
Botany 2009).

From the above it is evident that the DNA Although the bioinformatics tools and
profiling is the centre for biotechnological application are more focussed toward the
application in forensic botany. Forensic important crop plants, gradually it is
DNA and bioinformatics are inherently attaining the attention of forensic botany
interdisciplinary and draw their as well. A larger database for wild grass
techniques from statistics and computer needs to be developed and all the regional
science bringing them to bears on databases require to be integrated with
problems in biology and law. national and international databases
keeping forensic analysis in mind. Plants
Identification of plants and micro-floras occurred in the past investigation should
reported in the crime scene can be re- be listed out and depending upon the
sequenced using microarray and can be frequencies and complexity order research
analysed using bioinformatics standard project may be formulated under the
techniques. During the investigation monitoring of forensic department and
objective is to match DNA recovered from collaboration with research institutes and
crime scene and criminals. Bioinformatics universities.
tools and available database can be used
to estimate and determine the probability FORENSIC BOTANY AS PART OF
that a particular genotype might occur JUDGEMENT
(Bianchi and Lio, 2007). Plant Expression
Database, PlantGDB, Gramene, PGF-DB Forensic botany has reported a number of
(Plant Gene Family Database), Mendel, cases in which it was difficult to establish
GreenPhyIDB, GARNet are few plant the correct manner of crime that has
taken place. Such cases are being
genetic databases which provides many
reported all over the world a few of them
algorithmic tools that allows users to are mentioned below.
Indian Botanists Blog-o-Journal Chandra & Sharma, 2014 6

1. Investigation: In case of Ch. Hymavathi due to hanging but it was difficult to

Vs Govt. Of Andhra Pradesh and others, determine whether it was homicide or
forensic report of the poisonous suicide. During the investigation it was
found that moss has been smeared on the
substance (plant extract) used in the
inside of his wrists and the identical moss
murder solved to identify the real culprit. was fond growing on the tree. It was
Ignorance of forensic report leads to concluded that the moss must have been
harassment of innocent acquitting the transferred onto the skin while tying the
real culprit. Later the forensic report was rope to an upper branch. Thus, the
taken into cognizance to solve the case manner of death was established as
(http://indiankanoon.org/doc/723998/). suicide.

2. Homicide or Suicide: These cases were 3. Primary and Secondary Crime Scenes:
A dead body of a young man was found in
reported in Taiwan which shows the
the gutter on the side of the road in
simple use of plant material evidence to Taiwan. The dead man was grasping plant
establish whether the body found is the material in his hand. Most of the injuries
result of homicide or suicide. were below the knees and the autopsy
report revealed the presence of fragments
a) The first case, a body of a of bamboo in his stomach contents. But,
young woman was found in the gutter. in the gutter where the body was found no
Since no bone fractures were seen (before bamboo was growing. Thus, the bamboo
the autopsy) it was taken as a hit and run evidence helped in locating the scene
where the man was injured, it was
case. On viewing the surveillance tapes
thought that the man before dying
she was seen but as soon as a truck survived on bamboo and water. The
passed her she was not seen so it was holding of grass in his hands proved that
concluded that she has been hit by the he was alive when he was in gutter. Later
truck and to hide the accident the driver it was found that it was a hit and run
has hid her body in the gutter. While case and guilty persons threw him in the
bamboo grave to hide the accident.
during the autopsy some plant material, a
tiny berry and stem, were found in her 5. Plant Succession and Clandestine
hairs which were uncommon for that area Graves: Whenever an area covered with
suspected to be from the family plants is cleared say for a purpose of
Solanaceae. Later on, while the grave site, then due to plant succession
investigators visited the scene of crime process after sometime plants re-grow
they found the similar plants on the there. By analysing the soil conditions
and plant growth one can estimate about
railing of the building present there whose
the time of death at such sites. An
height was such that no person walking example of this is the post mortem dating
on street can come into its contact. Thus of a skeleton found in a field by
they concluded that the woman has felled determining the age of the plant growing
from the top of building and while falling in the eye socket of the skull.
down her body made the contact with the
plants and so the plant materials were 5. Time of Death: One of the cases
reported in Colorado, marks as an
transferred to her hairs and felled into the
example for determining the time of death
gutter. The autopsy report mentioned the by analysing the stomach contents. A
cause of death as the impact injuries and man was suspected to be murdered by his
the interviews held with her relatives own wife, Jil Caroll, he was her eighth
confirmed her suicidal tendency due to husband. During investigation was found
her suffering from depression. Thus, that the deceased was in habit of having
the same breakfast daily. During autopsy,
confirming the theory of investigators.
the stomach contents were misidentified
as noodles later on they were reported as
b) In another case, a male body
potatoes. The knowledge of estimated time
was found hanging on a tree. The mode of
to digest this type of food, it was
the death was established as asphyxiation
concluded the he died between two to four
Forensic Botany: An Emerging Discipline Chandra & Sharma, 2014 7

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