What is Proteomics? Applications in Forensic Science

Search For Schools

“It is important for students in this field to be ambitious. This is a new field for everyone, so students will need to decide on the project they want to work on and where they want to work on it. They have to set their objectives and find good mentors in this field who will help them perform their research and get to their final product.”Renu Goel, PhD, is Director of the Northwestern Proteomics Core at Northwestern University

Proteomics is a rapidly growing field of science that offers exciting possibilities for understanding and managing disease. Scientists can better understand how diseases develop by studying the structure and function of proteins and their abundance and interactions in different types of cells. With this knowledge, they can create new strategies to diagnose and treat illnesses more effectively.

“The word ‘proteomics’ is the combination of the words ‘proteome’ plus ‘omics,’” says Dr. Renu Goel, director of the Northwestern Proteomics Core at Northwestern University. She explains that omics are various disciplines within the field of biology, including genomics, metabolics, or lipidomics. Proteom, on the other hand, is the entire complement of proteins that can be expressed in a cell or organism.

This field has existed since 1975, when the first proteins were isolated and mapped. This field has grown significantly over the past few decades, with researchers now able to use it to study genes and genomes, investigate how different proteins interact with each other and the roles they play within the body, and even uncover key information in mechanistic studies on tumor growth and metastasis.

There are many applications for this ever-evolving science, especially in forensics. Proteomics offers a promising new tool for forensic scientists that can provide crucial information to crack cases and bring justice to crime victims. While it can be more challenging to extract proteins versus DNA, the clues found in proteins can answer more questions than DNA can.

For example, with proteomics, scientists can analyze evidence for traces of drugs or other substances, discover connections between two or more people involved in a crime, and examine the surface deterioration of evidence to determine how long ago it was left at the scene.

Keep reading to learn from Dr. Goel more about proteomics, how it can be applied to forensic research, and how to get started in this field.

Meet the Expert: Renu Goel, PhD

Renu Goel

Dr. Renu Goel is a renowned scientist with more than 15 years of experience in liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry-based proteomics, proteogenomics analysis, and quantitative peptide data. Her research group focuses on identifying pathways or proteins involved in disease biomarkers for better diagnosis and treatment of diseases. She has extensive experience in academia as well as working in the industry.

Dr. Goel is currently the director of the Northwestern Proteomics Core at Northwestern University in Chicago, IL. She holds a bachelor’s in Ayurvedic medicine and surgery from Maharishi Dayanand University, a master’s in technology in biotechnology from IASE Deemed University, and a PhD in biotechnology at Kuvempu University.

The Study of Proteomics

Proteomics is a complex field that requires specialist knowledge and training. It involves mass spectrometry, chromatography, and protein sequencing to analyze biological samples and identify the proteins present. As with any scientific field, understanding proteomics takes a lot of time, but the potential discoveries make it an exciting area of research.

At Northwestern, Dr. Goel and her team focus on biomarkers and learning how to use those to distinguish proteins: “We use five to six mass spectrometers with high sensitivity and resolution. We get samples from all over the world that we use to do both qualitative and quantitative analysis,” she shares. “For quantitative analysis, I want to know the number of proteins in that particular cell or in particular species, but in qualitative analysis, I am comparing X versus Y. For example, normal tissue versus cancer tissue.”

By doing these two kinds of analysis, Dr. Goel can track disease and whether a particular treatment works. “In our samples, we can see if the pattern of the proteins is up and down in particular pathways in given species. By looking at that, we can tell you what the progression of the disease is and if this treatment has not worked, and how well it has worked,” she says. For example, with these techniques, researchers can tell if a patient’s breast cancer is progressing, what stage it is at, and if the drug they are taking reduces the number of cancer cells. They can even tell if the protein responsible for the progression of the disease is decreasing or not to determine the efficacy of a treatment.

Other advancements in this field include the Human Proteoform Project, an ambitious international collaborative effort led by the non-profit Consortium for Top-Down Proteomics. This project aims to develop and apply powerful new technologies to map out what proteins are created from the body’s 20,300 human genes. This will revolutionize the understanding of human health and disease, providing foundational knowledge for the biological complexes and networks that control biology.

Applications in Forensic Science

Forensic science is no longer just about analyzing fingerprints or DNA. Proteomics is revolutionizing the way evidence is analyzed at crime scenes. By studying the proteins present in a sample and comparing them to other sources, scientists can identify the origin of biological material and determine an individual’s identity with remarkable accuracy.

With proteomics, evidence can be examined in new ways giving law enforcement the tools they need to seek justice. “With a blood sample of a person, whether it is dry or not, we can run and find out whether the protein pattern matches another sample,” says Dr. Goel. This can be extremely useful when no DNA is found, or the sample has degraded to where the DNA cannot be extracted. Also, proteins can disclose the type of tissue or fluid the same was in, whereas DNA will not.

For example, in 2014, a two-year-old died for unknown reasons in North Vancouver, British Columbia. The bruising on her body initially indicated that perhaps she had been harmed by her babysitter, but it didn’t completely match up. The babysitter kept exotic animals, so a biochemist from the University of British Columbia was called to examine the child’s blood and urine samples to identify toxins in the blood. The scientist examined the proteins in the samples, hoping to isolate one that didn’t belong. Ultimately, he successfully located nonhuman proteins that matched snake venom.

Further analysis suggested the protein came from a rattlesnake. DNA would not have been helpful in this case because, had it been present, it could have simply indicated that the child had come into contact with a snake, not that she had been bitten. The presence of the proteins in the blood proved that she had, in fact, been the victim of a snake bite.

How To Get Started In Proteomics

Because the field of proteomics is still relatively new, there are many opportunities for students and researchers to work on innovative and interesting projects.

To get started in this field, students will want to earn an undergraduate science degree in a field such as biology or chemistry that will help them prepare for their graduate studies. Studying at a school with a proteomics department, such as Northwestern Proteomics at Northwestern University or the Department of Molecular Medicine Proteomics at the University of South Florida, is ideal.

“It is important for students in this field to be ambitious. This is a new field for everyone, so students will need to decide on the project they want to work on and where they want to work on it,” encourages Dr. Goel. “They have to set their objectives and find good mentors in this field who will help them perform their research and get to their final product.”


Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson’s expertise and passion for investigative storytelling extends to the world of forensics, where she brings a wealth of knowledge and captivating narratives to readers seeking insights into this intriguing world. She has interviewed experts on little-known topics, such as how climate crimes are investigated and prosecuted, and has written for since 2019.

Kimmy has been a freelance writer for more than a decade, writing hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics such as startups, nonprofits, healthcare, kiteboarding, the outdoors, and higher education. She is passionate about seeing the world and has traveled to over 27 countries. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. When not working, she can be found outdoors, parenting, kiteboarding, or cooking.