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A Mountie investigator used the Internet to search for
an expert in cat genomes, which led him to Menotti-Raymond and LGD director
Stephen J. O’Brien. “They wanted to know if we could do a DNA fingerprint
of the cat hair,” Menotti-Raymond says. “We had the genetic tools to
do it, but it became a question of whether we wanted to get involved
in forensics, and whether we could isolate enough DNA from a single
hair specimen to perform the analysis. We decided to proceed and determined
there was a match between the cat and the hair found in the jacket.”
Menotti-Raymond and O’Brien became expert witnesses
during the murder trial, and their evidence helped convict Beamish.
The case set a legal precedent as the first to allow animal DNA-typing
data as evidence in a court proceeding. After-ward, the lab received
numerous requests from across the United States for similar DNA typing.
But LGD researchers simply did not have the time, resources, or mandate
from the NIH to devote to forensic investigations on a large scale.
The solution: Develop tools so that other facilities could do this kind
of forensic work. Last year, Menotti-Raymond received a $265,000 grant
from the U.S. Department of Justice to develop the National Feline Genetic
Database—the first of its kind. The researchers are using the grant
to develop molecular tools that will enable forensic laboratories to
do DNA analyses on cat specimens—hair, blood, or tissue samples. “The
goal is to develop the molecular tools needed to characterize cat specimens
left at crime scenes and to create a genetic database that can be used
to evaluate matching profiles,” Menotti-Raymond says.
To develop the database, Menotti-Raymond’s research
group is trying to collect about 50 specimens from each breed of cat.
There are about 35 different breeds, which means some 1,750 samples
are needed. To drum up interest in the project, Menotti-Raymond sent
out mass mailings to cat breeders and has visited numerous cat shows.
So far, the lab has collected more than 850 samples.
Menotti-Raymond began working at LGD after completing
a Ph.D. in molecular biology at SU in 1990. Much like the fabled nine
lives of a cat, the Fayetteville, New York, native has undergone a few
incarnations of her own. Although she always wanted to study microbiology
like her father, Amel Menotti, a chemist and the first director of research
at Bristol Laboratories in Syracuse, her life took a detour at Denison
University in Ohio. During her sophomore year there, she married and
returned to the Syracuse area with her husband.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology
at Syracuse University in 1966, and, after having two sons, James and
Daniel, completed a master’s degree in science teaching in 1971. When
the boys reached high-school age, Menotti-Raymond returned to college
to pursue her dream of becoming a biologist. “I felt I had left something
undone,” she says. “I initially went back to college to complete a master’s
degree in biology and then decided to continue on in the Ph.D. program.”
Menotti-Raymond studied with College of Arts and
Sciences biology professor David Sullivan, and, as a doctoral student,
researched genetic regulation in drosophila (fruit flies). The
work resulted in the publication of three papers that she co-authored
with Sullivan, who suggested she interview for a position at LGD after
she graduated. Since then, she has authored or co-authored more than
20 articles in her field. “I am fortunate to have spent the early years
of my children’s lives at home with them,” she says. “That was important
to me. But I was also lucky that when I decided to return to school,
it was only seven miles to a university where I found an excellent mentor
and an excellent laboratory.”
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