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Did cutting-edge DNA analysis point police to Marrisa Shen’s killer?




The former lawyer of the man accused of killing 13-year-old Marrisa Shen says investigators used a new form of crime-scene DNA analysis to determine that the girl’s killer was likely a man of Middle Eastern descent.

The analysis is called DNA phenotyping — also known as “Snapshot DNA” — and it has provided leads and arrests in several cold cases in the United States by helping investigators predict the appearance or even ethnicity of a suspect.

The analysis was used by investigators probing the homicide of Shen, whose body was discovered in a wooded corner in Burnaby’s Central Park on July 18, 2017, according to the suspect’s former lawyer.

“They were able to isolate the DNA found on the young girl’s body to be from people from a particular region in the world, that being part of the upper Middle East,” said Danny Markovitz, the former lawyer of Ibrahim Ali, the man now charged with the first-degree murder of Shen.

Markovitz stopped representing Ali last month due to a language barrier.

Ibrahim Ali, pictured in an undated Facebook photo, has been charged with the first-degree murder of 13-year-old Marrisa Shen. (Facebook)

Shen’s homicide sparked fear in the community that a killer was on the loose, until Ali’s arrest in September 2018. Ali came to Canada as a Syrian refugee in early 2017.

The Integrated Homicide Investigative Team did not respond to CBC calls inquiring about the DNA investigation.

What is DNA phenotyping?

In the U.S., emerging methods of DNA analysis are revolutionizing police work and providing new leads on cold cases by narrowing the list of potential suspects.

Traditional DNA analysis was only useful if crime-scene DNA matched that of a suspect already in a criminal database. But DNA phenotyping takes the genetic information left at a crime scene, such as blood and skin, and uses it to determine the physical appearance of a suspect. 

DNA phenotyping can be used to predict everything from a suspect’s ancestry and face shape to skin, eye and hair colour.

Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo is shown on the left, while the Snapshot image created by Parabon NanoLabs through DNA phenotyping is on the right. (Aurora Police Department/Parabon NanoLabs)

Cracking cold cases

Most famously, DNA phenotyping — along with another evolving method called genetic geneology — helped California authorities identify Joseph James DeAngelo, also known as the Golden State Killer.

DeAngelo had evaded capture for decades, despite being linked by DNA to dozens of serial rapes and murders. 

DNA phenotying reverse-engineers DNA to produce a physical profile of a suspect. (Parabon NanoLabs)

DNA phenotyping also helped crack the double murder cold case of Tanya van Cuylenborg and Jay Cook earlier this year.

The young Victoria couple were abducted and killed in Washington state in 1987, but despite having the killer’s DNA from the crime scene, the case stumped investigators for more than 30 years.

In April, Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs and the Snohomish County Sheriffs Office released sketches of van Cuylenberg and Cook’s killer created through the company’s trademarked Snapshot DNA phenotyping.

One month later, Seattle-area truck driver William Earl Talbott was arrested and charged with the murders.

Although Talbott was heavier than depicted in the sketches — body weight and age are two things that cannot be predicted by DNA — the likeness was striking. 

DNA sweep

Earlier this month, Burnaby Now was first to report that men of Middle Eastern descent had been targeted in a DNA collection sweep around the time of Ali’s arrest.

Two Burnaby men of Middle Eastern ancestry — Ayab Faek and Ariayan Fadhil —  confirmed to CBC that they gave DNA to police investigating Shen’s murder in the form of a blood sample.

The image created by Parabon Nanolabs is shown alongside the actual photo of accused double murderer William Earl Talbott. DNA phenotyping cannot account for environmental factors like body weight and hairstyle. (Parabon Snapshot DNA analysis)

IHIT said the Shen investigation was one of the largest it had ever undertaken, identifying 2,000 potential suspects. 

For months, the case appeared stalled, with police making numerous public appeals for information. When Ali was arrested and charged, they were tight-lipped about what finally broke the case, saying only new evidence had been gathered.  

A spokeswoman for Parabon NanoLabs said that due to privacy concerns, she could not confirm or deny if the company had done work for IHIT.

Ali is next scheduled to appear in Vancouver Provincial Court on Nov. 23.


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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla




Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm




Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover




KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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