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posted by mrpg on Monday July 09 2018, @12:11AM   Printer-friendly
from the insert-$gattaca dept.

Crime scene DNA could be used to reveal a suspect's age—and whether they have cancer

A drop of blood left by a suspect at a crime scene is a treasure trove for forensic scientists. Genetic information extracted from such biological samples can be compared against DNA databases to see whether a sample's DNA sequence is a match for any known offenders, for example. To protect individuals' privacy, these analyses, known as DNA fingerprinting, are normally restricted to parts of the genome not involved in creating proteins. But in some countries, investigators hoping to narrow down their pool of suspects are allowed to identify certain protein-coding sequences that can help predict skin or eye color. And soon, scientists may be able to find out even more from an offender's DNA—including their age.

A new forensic approach analyzes the chemical tags attached to DNA, rather than genetic sequences themselves. These molecules, which can switch genes on and off, get added onto DNA throughout our life span in a process called DNA methylation. And because the patterns of DNA methylation change as we age, they could provide a good indication of how old a suspect is.

But this technique could inadvertently reveal a lot more about a suspect's health and lifestyle [DOI: 10.1016/j.tig.2018.03.006] [DX], raising tricky legal and ethical questions that may demand new privacy safeguards, scientists suggest in a commentary in the July issue of Trends in Genetics.

A brief interview with two of the authors is included in TFA.

Related: Better DNA Hair Analysis for Catching Criminals
Creating Wanted Posters from DNA Samples
The Problems With DNA Evidence
Study Predicts Appearance From Genome Sequence Data
GEDmatch: "What If It Was Called Police Genealogy?"
DNA Collected from Golden State Killer Suspect's Car, Leading to Arrest

Original Submission

Related Stories

Better DNA Hair Analysis for Catching Criminals 10 comments

A simple, lower-cost new method for DNA profiling of human hairs developed by the University of Adelaide should improve opportunities to link criminals to serious crimes.

The researchers have modified existing laboratory methods and been able to produce accurate DNA profiles from trace amounts at a much higher success rate.

"Technological advancements over the last 10 years have allowed police and forensic scientists to profile crime-scene DNA from ever smaller and more challenging samples collected from fingerprints, skin cells, saliva and hairs," says Associate Professor Jeremy Austin, Deputy Director with the University's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.

"DNA profiling of human hairs is critical to solving many serious crimes but most hairs found at crime scenes contain very little DNA because it has been severely dehydrated as part of the hair growth process. This makes DNA testing of hairs a real challenge."

[...] Lead-author Assistant Professor Dennis McNevin, from the University of Canberra, says: "Our simple modifications will allow this trace DNA to be analysed in a standard forensic laboratory with improved success rates of DNA profiling and without increased error rates.

"This is very important in forensic science as false positive results can lead to incorrect identifications and poor outcomes in the judicial system."

Creating Wanted Posters from DNA Samples 16 comments

KOMO TV (Seattle) is carrying a story about unsolved "Cold Case" murders in Tacoma that occurred in 1986.

TACOMA, Wash. - Using cutting-edge technology not available until now, investigators have released composite sketches of two men suspected of abducting and killing two young Tacoma girls in 1986.

Police say they are determined to solve the two horrific murder cases, which have gone cold after three decades - and they are hopeful the new technology will help lead them to the killers.

There were no witnesses. But DNA samples were found. So how were the sketches made?

The "composite sketches" were generated by a computer based on a process called DNA Phenotyping which is the prediction of physical appearance, using information extracted from DNA which accurately predicts genetic ancestry, eye color, hair color, skin color, freckling, and face shape in individuals from any ethnic background, even individuals with mixed ancestry.

"These are composites much like a witness giving a description and a computer program making a sketch based on known appearance factors," Loretta Cool of the Tacoma police said in a prepared statement. "These composites will not be exact but the outcome is a visual reference that may look similar to what the suspects looked like in 1986."

The process was developed by Parabon Nanolabs and the process is explained on their web site.

How close are the predictions?

Parabon's website has some examples generated from DNA contributed by known volunteers. You can compare the sketches with photos of the volunteers and judge for yourself. Personally, I think Yolanda McClary's actual IMDB photo is virtually a dead ringer for the computer prediction.

Original Submission

The Problems With DNA Evidence 21 comments

The Atlantic has a lengthy, but informative, article on the problems with DNA testing, often seen as infallible by juries:

"Ironically, you have a technology that was meant to help eliminate subjectivity in forensics," Erin Murphy, a law professor at NYU, told me recently. "But when you start to drill down deeper into the way crime laboratories operate today, you see that the subjectivity is still there: Standards vary, training levels vary, quality varies."

Last year, Murphy published a book called Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA, which recounts dozens of cases of DNA typing gone terribly wrong. Some veer close to farce, such as the 15-year hunt for the Phantom of Heilbronn, whose DNA had been found at more than 40 crime scenes in Europe in the 1990s and early 2000s. The DNA in question turned out to belong not to a serial killer, but to an Austrian factory worker who made testing swabs used by police throughout the region.

The article also notes the increasing reliance on computer processing and the desire of the firms responsible to keep the details of the processing hidden, highlighting the example of DNA-testing firm Cybergenetics and their TrueAllele software:

William Thompson [attorney and a criminology professor at the University of California at Irvine] points out that Perlin [Cybergenetics CEO] has declined to make public the algorithm that drives the program. "You do have a black-box situation happening here," Thompson told me. "The data go in, and out comes the solution, and we're not fully informed of what happened in between."

Last year, at a murder trial in Pennsylvania where TrueAllele evidence had been introduced, defense attorneys demanded that Perlin turn over the source code for his software, noting that "without it, [the defendant] will be unable to determine if TrueAllele does what Dr. Perlin claims it does." The judge denied the request.
When I interviewed Perlin at Cybergenetics headquarters, I raised the matter of transparency. He was visibly annoyed. He noted that he'd published detailed papers on the theory behind TrueAllele, and filed patent applications, too: "We have disclosed not the trade secrets of the source code or the engineering details, but the basic math."

Originally seen at Bruce Schneier's Blog.

Original Submission

Study Predicts Appearance From Genome Sequence Data 10 comments

Anonymity continues to die a little every day:

The physical traits predicted from genome sequence data may be sufficient to identify anonymous individuals in the absence of other information, according to a study set to appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

After looking for links between physical phenotypes and whole-genome sequence data for more than 1,000 individuals from a range of ancestral groups, researchers from the US and Singapore took a crack at predicting biometric traits based on genetic data with the help of a newly developed algorithm. In a group of de-identified individuals, they reported, the algorithm made it possible to identify a significant proportion of individuals based on predictions of three-dimensional facial structure, ethnicity, height, weight, and other traits.

"By associating de-identified genomic data with phenotypic measurements of the contributor, this work challenges current conceptions of genomic privacy," senior author Craig Venter, of Human Longevity and the J. Craig Venter Institute, and his co-authors wrote. "It has significant ethical and legal implications on personal privacy, the adequacy of informed consent, the viability and value of de-identification of data, the potential for police profiling, and more."

[...] [Genome] sequences [...] are not currently protected as identifying data under the US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act's Safe Harbor method for ensuring anonymous and de-identified patient information.

Also at Bio-IT World, PRNewswire, and San Diego Union Tribune.

Previously: Creating Wanted Posters from DNA Samples

Related: EFF to Supreme Court: The Fourth Amendment Covers DNA Collection
Kuwait Creating Mandatory DNA Database of All Citizens, Residents--and Visitors
Massive DNA Collection Campaign in Xinjiang, China
Routine Whole Genome Sequencing: Not Scary?

Original Submission

DNA Collected from Golden State Killer Suspect's Car, Leading to Arrest 19 comments

When the suspected Golden State Killer drove into a Hobby Lobby parking lot in April, investigators were waiting nearby. As he walked into the craft store, it gave them a perfect chance to collect a secret DNA sample.

Police swabbed the driver's side handle of [the suspect's] car, according to arrest and search warrants released Friday.

Authorities sent it for testing and matched it to semen recovered at some of the Golden State Killer's crime scenes, the arrest warrant said.

[...] The stop at the Hobby Lobby was just one of several ways investigators used to zero in on a suspect. Earlier this year, police tracked him down by comparing genetic profiles from genealogy websites to crime scene DNA, according to investigators.

On April 23, a day before his arrest, police say they collected multiple samples from a trash can outside DeAngelo's home in Citrus Heights, a town 16 miles northeast of Sacramento. They had watched the home for three days, the warrant said.

Previously: DNA From Genealogy Site Led to Capture of Golden State Killer Suspect
GEDmatch: "What If It Was Called Police Genealogy?"

Original Submission

Indiana Murder Suspect Found by Using Genealogical Website 44 comments

Murder suspect due in U.S. court after DNA cracks open 1988 case

A 59-year-old Indiana man will be formally charged on Thursday with the 1988 murder of an eight-year-old girl after the decades-old cold case was cracked open by DNA evidence linked to a genealogical website, authorities said on Tuesday.

John Miller of Grabill, Indiana, was arrested in nearby Fort Wayne on Sunday after DNA evidence and records on publicly accessible genealogical websites helped investigators track him down. Investigators followed a pattern similar to that used to track down the "Golden State Killer" in California earlier this year.

Miller on Monday was preliminarily charged with murder, child molestation and confinement of someone under 14 years old, 30 years after eight-year-old April Tinsley was found dead in a ditch. He has been ordered held without bond.

If you don't hand over your DNA, you want child murderers to frolic in freedom.

Related: DNA From Genealogy Site Led to Capture of Golden State Killer Suspect
GEDmatch: "What If It Was Called Police Genealogy?"
DNA Collected from Golden State Killer Suspect's Car, Leading to Arrest
Another Alleged Murderer Shaken Out of the Family Tree
'Martyr of the A10': DNA Leads to France Arrests Over 1987 Murder
DNA Methylation Can Reveal Information About Criminal Suspects

Original Submission

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  • (Score: -1, Offtopic) by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 09 2018, @12:21AM (3 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 09 2018, @12:21AM (#704365)

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    • (Score: 0, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 09 2018, @12:33AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 09 2018, @12:33AM (#704368)

      I suck Ethanol's dick as often as I can.

    • (Score: 0, Funny) by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 09 2018, @01:02AM (1 child)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 09 2018, @01:02AM (#704373)


      • (Score: -1, Troll) by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 09 2018, @01:39AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 09 2018, @01:39AM (#704384)

        आपको भी, मल सिर!

  • (Score: 2) by jdccdevel on Monday July 09 2018, @02:18PM (1 child)

    by jdccdevel (1329) on Monday July 09 2018, @02:18PM (#704557) Journal

    I fail to see the ethical dilemma in extracting all viable information from evidence left at the scene of a crime to identify the perpetrator.

    That, of course, is assuming the science is sound.

    The ethical dilemma is what's done with that information once you have it. Rounding up all the people in town that match the description and testing their DNA would be a problem. Maintaining a DNA database of everyone in the country would be a problem.

    This tech to me is very similar to a sketch artist, with a bit of probable medical history tacked on.

    It also seems to me, that since this is identifying changes made to DNA during our lifetimes, (based on environmental factors?) it may be useful for uniquely identifying which of a particular set of twins, triplets, etc. committed a crime. From my understanding current DNA technology cannot do that.

    • (Score: 2) by HiThere on Monday July 09 2018, @05:52PM

      by HiThere (866) Subscriber Badge on Monday July 09 2018, @05:52PM (#704635) Journal

      The problem isn't that the evidence isn't valid, though it might be subject to various degradations depending on environmental conditions that could affect methylation after the blood was lost. The problem is false positives. Knowing that someone's blood showed up at a place is not identical to knowing that they did. This problem is shared with all other DNA evidence. If properly handled it's excellent evidence, but what it reveals isn't exactly what the naive interpretation thinks it reveals. People are shedding DNA all the time, and carrying around other people's DNA as foxtails are carried by dogs. (Well, not literally, but it's a reasonable metaphor.) And when they shake or move vigorously, some of that DNA tends to drop off.

      There have already been cases where someone was implicated who could not possibly have been present. (IIRC, he was in another state at the time.) So it's excellent evidence, but it's not, in and of itself, proof of presence. It's also quite easy to drop false clues implicating someone else.

      Of course, a more frequent problem is the labs that are supposed to do the work falsifying their work to give back the result the police have asked for. That has happened so often that one would be quite credulous to impart much certainty on any of these "forensic science" results. It's not that the evidence is bad, it's the handling of it.

      Javascript is what you use to allow unknown third parties to run software you have no idea about on your computer.