Company co-founded by chemistry professor to be featured in new TV series

Update (5/18/2020) – The ABC premiere of "The Genetic Detective," which features a company co-founded by Marshall University Chemistry Professor Dr. Michael Norton, has been delayed a week until 10 p.m. Tuesday, May 26.

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A company co-founded by Marshall University Chemistry Professor Dr. Michael Norton will be featured in a new television series that will begin airing May 19 on ABC.

The series, "The Genetic Detective," features CeCe Moore, Chief Genetic Genealogist at Parabon NanoLabs in Virginia. Parabon uses DNA technology to solve cold cases, among many other uses, and Moore will share with viewers how she uses science to identify suspects in long-unsolved murder cases.

Parabon NanoLabs (PNL) was founded in 2008, but its beginnings go back to 2005, when now Parabon CEO Steve Armentrout, Ph.D. (and West Virginia native), visited Norton at Marshall, seeking difficult problems that would require massively parallel computation to solve. Norton is a pioneer in DNA-based nanotechnology, and their discussions led to collaborative efforts.

According to the company’s website, Parabon’s early focus was on oncology therapeutics using DNA nanostructures. Additional applications followed, involving vaccines, drug development, DNA phenotyping and kinship inference. With funding from the Department of Defense Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program from 2011 to 2014, the company’s bioinformatics team introduced a new method of DNA testing to the forensic community and developed trait prediction and advanced kinship capabilities for forensics applications.  These pioneering efforts paved the way for applying genetic genealogy to criminal casework.  Genetic genealogy is the combination of genetic analysis with traditional historical and genealogical research to study family history. For forensic investigations, it can be used to identify remains by tying the DNA to a family with a missing person or to point to the likely identity of a perpetrator.

The company has grown, but DNA has always been its central theme, said Norton, who is its Chief Science Officer. With headquarters in Reston, Virginia, and scientific researchers working in Virginia, and Seattle, Washington, it also has one branch in Huntington, where DNA nanotechnology experiments are performed by researchers trained in Norton’s labs at Marshall.

"The company is very flat in the sense that all participants have direct communication with everyone else, and there are no layers of bureaucracy providing barriers and preventing great ideas from bubbling to the top. The group is smart, highly critical with the understanding that gems can be produced under high pressure," Norton said.

"It is amazing that the bioinformatics arm of the company has helped law enforcement solve these cases at the rate of about one case per week for almost 18 months," he said. "Although the focus is on cold cases, since in those situations it is known that traditional methods have come to a dead end, I think that solving current cases could be done just as readily.  We know that other companies are working to emulate our success.  However, Parabon was so perfectly positioned to perform these DNA investigations that we were the first company to apply these techniques."

The efforts of several people have created a fertile environment for success, Norton said.

"Certainly, working with CeCe has been key to the success of this endeavor," Norton said. "As a pioneer in the genetic genealogy field, she prepared herself extremely well for this special time in history, when a perfect storm of technology, computer science, connectivity and well-trained curiosity have come together."

Norton went on to say, "In these days of COVID-19, one would not think that the importance of science needs more publicity, however, we know the number of questions that science can answer is much bigger than the number of students entering STEM fields.  I am grateful for every science educator and scientist who influenced me to join their ranks. They have provided me with an opportunity to play a small part in solving some problems. Most exciting, however, is the fact that in science, there are always surprises, often pleasant ones, and that keeps the future interesting."

With inquiries for Norton, PNL or ABC, contact Jean Hardiman at Marshall at jean.hardiman@marshall.edu.