New DNA technique sketches virtual depiction of suspects

Posted by Lydia Leavitt

When it comes to analyzing DNA evidence, law enforcement can't do much nowadays but compare samples to known suspects or criminals within a police database. 



But wouldn't it be cool if scientists could actually develop a physical description based on DNA? 



Well, Dutch scientists are closer than you may think.

New DNA technique sketches virtual depiction of suspectA new scientific breakthrough shows that scientists can determine a suspect's age based on a tiny blood sample. The science is so accurate, it's precise enough to determine age within nine years.

The breakthrough can also yield clues about a person's genetic ancestry including skin pigmentation and facial geometry.

This comes after the announcement that researchers can determine eye color and soon they hope to determine hair color, all from one small hair or fluid left at the science of the crime.

The scientists call this new field forensic phenotyping and hope that it will help law enforcement narrow down and determine new suspects, or aid in solving cold cases where there are no eyewitnesses.

"Our approach is expected to provide investigative leads in criminal cases by allowing an accurate estimation of the generation age of unknown individuals from minute blood stains," the team, based at University Medical Centre Rotterdam, wrote in the journal Current Biology.

Aside from criminal cases, Mark Shriver, professor of genetics and anthropology at Penn State explains the benefit of this type of science in disaster situations where identification may be impossible.

"Our approach is also expected to be applied to disaster-victim identification where body parts [containing blood] are available and where age information can be crucial for final identification."

Although a fascinating development in forensic science, Canadian researcher chair in DNA profiling and forensics at Trend University in Ontario, Paul Wilson ponders, "My first inclination is to ask: What are the technical limitations? Can you generate false results?"

Could the degradation of scene samples cause skewed results that may lead law enforcement to the wrong suspects?

He also adds that such detailed forensics may also work in a criminal's favor. For example, the DNA evidence could show that the killer has blond hair, but in fact police like a brown-haired man for the crime. "It can be helpful in one stage and a liability in another stage," says Wilson.

Some activists are even worried that science like this could prompt governments to create a "DNA dragnet" (samples from a large amount of people based on physical description or race), whether or not they are a suspect. This raises huge privacy and civil liberty concerns.

In essence, activists and researchers can't stop these scientific developments, nor should they. 

Still, as the technology becomes more ubiquitous, it's important for governments to pass laws to ensure the fair, accurate use of the technology to protect personal privacy as well as civil liberties.

(Via Vancouver Sun)