SOMERSET, Pa. – A few years ago, Universal Forensics received a call from a Midwestern man.
He was older – a lifelong bachelor who’d never had a family of his own.
But after meeting a young woman in his community, they both began to suspect that he was her father, said Universal Forensics CEO Julie Cramer.
“It was over the holidays when the samples arrived,” Cramer said, “and I’ll never forget – we called him with the results on Christmas Eve to tell him she was his daughter.”
It was a memorable moment for a company that has been providing scientific answers to questions of that sort for the past nine years from its Somerset Borough laboratory.
The only difference: Most of the time, the company knows nothing more about the DNA they are processing than that it arrived in a standard envelope, said Zach Gaskin, the company’s chief scientific officer.
“For us, the vast majority of our work involves samples someone ordered through another business … or our website. We don’t always know why someone wants their DNA tested,” Gaskin said. “It’s not like the Maury Povich Show.”
There’s no drama – “just science,” he said.
Today, much of the company’s work involves processing DNA tests for paternity cases to confirm or refute family ties between parents and children.
Other DNA tests are used in the immigration process required to help foreign citizens reunite with relatives residing in the U.S. by proving that applicants are blood relatives.
Other times, tests might enable someone to confirm genealogical ties to a suspected uncle or grandparent, possibly the lone survivor from that generation in a family line, he added.
‘Where the magic happens’
Universal Forensics employs 11 people, Cramer said.
Gaskin compared the company’s testing process to finding someone’s unique “bar code” to answer specific genetic questions.
It starts with someone submitting two mouth swabs, which arrive in envelopes with details attached to describe the test order, he said. The cotton ends of the swabs are sliced off and placed into tubes for testing.
A chemical solution is added, and the samples are heated to near-boiling through a heat block to break open the cells collected by the mouth swab, Gaskin said.
At this point, the sample is run through “PCR amplification” – a process that creates a chain reaction that acts like a Xerox machine to create copies of DNA targets on a molecular level.
In doing so, the company only focuses on the markers in which they are interested to determine DNA relationship links, Gaskin said.
Genetic analyzers are also used to pull the information needed along hair-like wires through electricity. What is captured by a specialized camera enables a computer program to display each color-coded marker for analysis.
“It doesn’t get into human characteristics or health – or tell you if you are Irish or not,” Gaskin said. “It tells us only what we need to know to answer their question.”
To Gaskin, those answers may not always be what someone wants to hear. But it’s more than just an answer – it’s “the truth,” often down to a 99% reliability.
Gaskin started his career in law enforcement, working in a forensic unit with the San Diego police for three years before moving to Florida, then to Somerset County.
Today, while it’s not a bulk of the company’s work, there are times the company analyzes teeth, hair and bone fragments to help clients get answers in DNA cases, he said.
During one instance several years ago, Nigerian government officials approached their company with an almost impossible challenge, he said.
A boat carrying the bodies of 11 slain Nigerian police officers was apparently attacked during a funeral procession, causing the boat to sink and the remains to end up on the river bottom. Eventually they were recovered, and the bodies were placed in a formaldehyde solution to preserve them.
Gaskin said the fact that Universal Forensics uses a 46-marker test, rather than the standard 24, to search for matches enabled them to identify enough DNA markers that they were able to match the DNA with the slain officers’ relatives to give them the closure they were seeking.
“In the end, we were able to identify enough markers to connect them to their relatives,” he said.
Cramer said its their company’s 46-marker testing that sets the company apart from other labs, because it enables them to confirm someone’s DNA match to “further-removed” blood relatives, such as aunts or uncles.
There aren’t many companies in their field, regardless. Just 40 DNA labs across the globe have earned accreditation from the Association for the Advancement of Blood & Biotherapies – what labs across the nation describe as the gold standard for relationship testing.
“If you Google for DNA relationship testing around here, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see our company,” he said.
Often, however, people may obtain test kits through companies on Amazon or even chiropractors’ offices without ever knowing they’ll be shipped to Somerset for lab work, Gaskin said.
Somerset Borough Manager Michele Enos described Universal Forensics as a hidden “secret” in the heart of uptown Somerset. But the community is fortunate to have them – and the jobs they have created.
“They are a valuable part of Somerset, and with what they do, we’re very fortunate to have them here,” Enos said.