Cat-nabbed! Feline DNA helps catch killer

With some assistance from DNA scientists, the cat hairs found on a corpse help police identify the killer.

He's going to get you. compilarizTVi/YouTube Screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

A dog might be a man's best friend.

A cat, not so much.

It's not merely that cats can be mercilessly self-centered beings. It's that their hair might help convict you, should you be accused of a heinous crime.

In what's said to be the first ever case of cat hair helping to catch a U.K. killer, scientists in Britain worked using a cat DNA database to identify cat hair found on a corpse.

As the Associated Press reports, the dismembered torso of David Guy was found stuffed in bag on a beach in July 2012. The Hampshire police worked hard to match the cat hair found around Guy's body with a cat that belonged to a suspect, David Hilder.

But the DNA drawn from the cat hair was mitochondrial DNA, and lots of cats share this DNA.

Jon Wetton, a geneticist with the University of Leicester who created the cat DNA database, explained to the Daily Mail: "Within each cat hair are two types of DNA, individual-specific 'nuclear DNA,' detectable in the roots of some larger hairs, and 'mitochondrial DNA' which is shared by all maternally-related individuals and can be found even in the finest hair shafts."

"Hampshire police wanted to know the evidential strength of the match," Wetton told the Daily Mail. "I explained that could only be determined with reference to a database of UK cats -- which did not exist at the time."

So Wetton, working with doctoral student Barbara Ottolini, collected DNA from 152 cats from all over the British Isles. They got them from a company that pores over animal samples on behalf of vets.

They examined them, comparing their DNA with that found on the body. Soon, they discovered that only three samples matched the DNA of the alleged killer's cat -- named Tinker. While not a perfect match, it still suggests that hairs found around Guy's body likely came from Hilder's cat.

The police had first sent the cat hairs to the University of California, Davis, where scientists confirmed they could find no match for Tinker's DNA in the U.S. cat database.

Naturally, Hilder wasn't convicted on this evidence alone. He was, however, sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum of 12 years before he is eligible for parole.

Wetton sees a future for this type of analysis to help convict criminals. Cats, after all, can be tactile and there are around 10 million of them in Britain.

The moral of the story is very simple. It is one reflective of modern life at its most vulnerable.

If your online activity doesn't incriminate you, your cat just might.

 

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