DNA fingerprinting in forensics: past, present, future
© Roewer; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2013
Received: 8 October 2013
Accepted: 8 October 2013
Published: 18 November 2013
DNA fingerprinting, one of the great discoveries of the late 20th century, has revolutionized forensic investigations. This review briefly recapitulates 30 years of progress in forensic DNA analysis which helps to convict criminals, exonerate the wrongly accused, and identify victims of crime, disasters, and war. Current standard methods based on short tandem repeats (STRs) as well as lineage markers (Y chromosome, mitochondrial DNA) are covered and applications are illustrated by casework examples. Benefits and risks of expanding forensic DNA databases are discussed and we ask what the future holds for forensic DNA fingerprinting.
The past - a new method that changed the forensic world
'“I’ve found it! I’ve found it”, he shouted, running towards us with a test-tube in his hand. “I have found a re-agent which is precipitated by hemoglobin, and by nothing else”,’ says Sherlock Holmes to Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s first novel A study in Scarlet from1886 and later: 'Now we have the Sherlock Holmes’ test, and there will no longer be any difficulty […]. Had this test been invented, there are hundreds of men now walking the earth who would long ago have paid the penalty of their crimes’ .
Jeffreys’ original technology, now obsolete for forensic use, underwent important developments in terms of the basic methodology, that is, from Southern blot to PCR, from radioactive to fluorescent labels, from slab gels to capillary electrophoresis. As the technique became more sensitive, the handling simple and automated and the statistical treatment straightforward, DNA profiling, as the method was renamed, entered the forensic routine laboratories around the world in storm. But, what counts in the Pitchfork case and what still counts today is the process to get DNA identification results accepted in legal proceedings. Spectacular fallacies, from the historical 1989 case of People vs. Castro in New York  to the case against Knox and Sollecito in Italy (2007–2013) where literally DNA fingerprinting was on trial , disclosed severe insufficiencies in the technical protocols and especially in the DNA evidence interpretation and raised nolens volens doubts on the scientific and evidentiary value of forensic DNA fingerprinting. These cases are rare but frequent enough to remind each new generation of forensic analysts, researchers, or private sector employees that DNA evidence is nowadays an important part of factual evidence and needs thus intense scrutiny for all parts of the DNA analysis and interpretation process.
In the following I will briefly describe the development of DNA fingerprinting to a standardized investigative method for court use which has since 1984 led to the conviction of thousands of criminals and to the exoneration of many wrongfully suspected or convicted individuals . Genetic fingerprinting per se could of course not reduce the criminal rate in any of the many countries in the world, which employ this method. But DNA profiling adds hard scientific value to the evidence and strengthens thus (principally) the credibility of the legal system.
The technological evolution of forensic DNA profiling
Lineage markers in forensic analysis
In 2002, a woman was found with a smashed skull and covered in blood but still alive in her Berlin apartment. Her life was saved by intensive medical care. Later she told the police that she had let a man into her apartment, and he had immediately attacked her. The man was subletting the apartment next door. The evidence collected at the scene and in the neighboring apartment included a baseball cap, two towels, and a glass. The evidence was sent to the state police laboratory in Berlin, Germany and was analyzed with conventional autosomal STR profiling. Stains on the baseball cap and on one towel revealed a pattern consistent with that of the tenant, whereas two different male DNA profiles were found on a second bath towel and on the glass. The tenant was eliminated as a suspect because he was absent at the time of the offense, but two unknown men (different in autosomal but identical in Y-STRs) who shared the apartment were suspected. Unfortunately, the apartment had been used by many individuals of both European and African nationalities, so the initial search for the two men became very difficult. The police obtained a court order for Y-STR haplotyping to gain information about the unknown men’s population affiliation. Prerequisites for such biogeographic analyses are large reference databases containing Y-STR haplotypes also typed for ancestry informative single nucleotide markers (SNP) markers from hundreds of different populations. The YHRD proved useful to infer the population origin of the unknown man. The database inquiry indicated a patrilineage of Southern European ancestry, whereas an African descent was unlikely (Figure 5). The police were able to track down the tenant in Italy, and with his help, establish the identity of one of the unknown men, who was also Italian. When questioning this man, the police used the information retrieved from Y-STR profiling that he had shared the apartment in Berlin with a paternal relative. This relative was identified as his nephew. Because of the close-knit relationship within the family, this information would probably not have been easily retrieved from the uncle without the prior knowledge. The nephew was suspected of the attempted murder in Berlin. He was later arrested in Italy, where he had committed another violent robbery.
Information on the biogeographic origin of an unknown DNA could also be retrieved from a number of ancestry informative SNPs (AISNPs) on autosomes or insertion/deletion polymorphisms [37, 38] but perhaps even better from so-called mini-haplotypes with only <10 SNPs spanning small molecular intervals (<10 kb) with very low recombination among sites . Each 'minihap’ behaves like a locus with multiple haplotype lineages (alleles) that have evolved from the ancestral human haplotype. All copies of each distinct haplotype are essentially identical by descent. Thus, they fall like Y and mtDNA into the lineage-informative category of genetic markers and are thus useful for connecting an individual to a family or ancestral genetic pool.
Benefits and risks of forensic DNA databases
The steady growth in the size of forensic DNA databases raises issues on the criteria of inclusion and retention and doubts on the efficiency, commensurability, and infringement of privacy of such large personal data collections. In contrast to the past, not only serious but all crimes are subject to DNA analysis generating millions and millions of DNA profiles, many of which are stored and continuously searched in national DNA databases. And as always when big datasets are gathered new mining procedures based on correlation became feasible. For example, 'Familial DNA Database Searching’ is based on near matches between a crime stain and a databased person, which could be a near relative of the true perpetrator . Again the first successful familial search was conducted in UK in 2004 and led to the conviction of Craig Harman of manslaughter. Craig Harman was convicted because of partial matches from Harman’s brother. The strategy was subsequently applied in some US states but is not conducted at the national level. It was during a dragnet that it first became public knowledge that the German police were also already involved in familial search strategies. In a little town in Northern Germany the police arrested a young man accused of rape because they had analyzed the DNA of his two brothers who had participated in the dragnet. Because of partial matches between crime scene DNA profiles and these brothers they had identified the suspect. In contrast to other countries, the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany decided in December 2012 against the future court use of this kind of evidence.
Civil rights and liberties are crucial for democratic societies and plans to extend forensic DNA databases to whole populations need to be condemned. Alec Jeffreys early on has questioned the way UK police collects DNA profiles, holding not only convicted individuals but also arrestees without conviction, suspects cleared in an investigation, or even innocent people never charged with an offence . He also criticized that large national databases as the NDNAD of England and Wales are likely skewed socioeconomically. It has been pointed out that most of the matches refer to minor offences; according to GeneWatch in Germany 63% of the database matches provided are related to theft while <3% related to rape and murder. The changes to the UK database came in the 2012’s Protection of Freedoms bill, following a major defeat at the European Court of Human Rights in 2008. As of May 2013 1.1 million profiles (of about 7 million) had been destroyed to remove innocent people’s profiles from the database. In 2005 the incoming government of Portugal proposed a DNA database containing samples from every Portuguese citizen. Following public objections, the government limited the database to criminals. A recent study on the public views on DNA database-related matters showed that a more critical attitude towards wider national databases is correlated with the age and education of the respondents . A deeper public awareness on the benefits and risks of very large DNA collections need to be built and common ethical and privacy standards for the development and governance of DNA databases need to be adopted where the citizen’s perspectives are taken into consideration.
The future of forensic DNA analysis
At present the forensic DNA technology directly affects the lives of millions people worldwide. The general acceptance of this technique is still high, reports on the DNA identification of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks , of natural disasters as the Hurricane Katrina , and of recent wars (for example, in former Yugoslavia ) and dictatorship (for example, in Argentina ) impress the public in the same way as police investigators in white suits securing DNA evidence at a broken door. CSI watchers know, and even professionals believe, that DNA will inevitably solve the case just following the motto Do Not Ask, it’s DNA, stupid! But the affirmative view changes and critical questions are raised. It should not be assumed that the benefits of forensic DNA fingerprinting will necessarily override the social and ethical costs .
This short article leaves many of such questions unanswered. Alfred Nobel used his fortune to institute a prize for work 'in ideal direction’. What would be the ideal direction in which DNA fingerprinting, one of the great discoveries in recent history, should be developed?
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