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A Picture of You from Your DNA?

Posted by Battelle Staff on May 5, 2015

Could investigators use your DNA to link you to a crime scene? If you’ve never been arrested or convicted of a crime, probably not.

Today’s DNA forensic techniques can only tell whether or not the genetic sample matches a sequence already in the DNA database. But what if that DNA could tell investigators a lot more? New technology may allow law enforcement to build pictures of suspects from their DNA, providing crucial evidence even in the absence of a genetic match.

The Limits of Today’s Forensic DNA Analysis

Today’s DNA forensics depends on finding a match to the DNA sequence in an existing database. Currently, only convicted criminals and those arrested for certain felonies have their DNA added to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). That means that many crimes go unsolved because the DNA evidence left behind does not produce an exact match to an individual already in the database. And without an exact match, the DNA evidence collected by investigators is largely worthless.

Next Generation DNA Forensics

But what if you could extract other information from the DNA? Current DNA forensic methods look at simple patterns in DNA. But DNA codes for specific phenotypes in the person that left the DNA behind: physical heritable traits such as hair color, eye color, height and facial characteristics as well as clues into ethnicity and ancestral geographic origin.

Moving DNA Forensics Into the Future

The biggest technical challenge for DNA forensics is our incomplete understanding of the human genome. The majority of research on genetic sequencing to date has been focused on medical applications. However, this is changing as the cost of DNA sequencing continues to drop.

As law enforcement and private databases grow and advances in computer processing drive down the costs of bioinformatics analysis, we will deepen our understanding of how physical traits are linked to genes. In the future, it may well be possible to have a computer spit out an accurate and recognizable police sketch based solely on DNA data.

Intrigued? Check out the video to learn how Battelle’s ExactID™ is helping forensic DNA scientists.


Photo: battelle employee using a virtual workboard