Friday, September 11, 2009

Faked DNA evidence torpedoes certainty

For two decades the police and Home Office have insisted that DNA evidence is 100% reliable and that the frantic acquisition of DNA samples from innocent people, as well those convicted of a crime, will make Britain a safer place. But today, on the 25th anniversary of Sir Alec Jeffrey's discovery of the genetic fingerprint, its worth examining important new research from Israel which proves that DNA evidence can be manipulated and that DNA samples may be fabricated. A disturbing possibility for those whose DNA profiles are kept on the police national DNA database.

It is difficult to underestimate the significance of the research by Dr Dan Frumkin and others, published in Forensic Science International Genetics. For one thing it sinks the argument made by Tony Blair and Jack Straw that Britain should opt for a database of everyone's DNA.

Frumkin's team showed that:

• DNA samples of blood and saliva from a person can be manufactured from someone else's body fluids.

• Access to a DNA database is all that would be needed to construct a sample of a person's DNA. No tissue or fluids are necessary.

• Using some of the techniques the team developed, a trace of person's DNA might be acquired and turned into saliva sample which could be submitted to a genetic testing company in order to discover ancestry or extremely private information about inherited vulnerability to diseases.

Speaking to the New York Times, Frumkin said: "You can just engineer a crime scene. Any biology undergraduate could perform this." The paper reported that the authors of the paper,

"took blood from a woman and centrifuged it to remove the white cells, which contain DNA. To the remaining red cells they added DNA that had been amplified from a man's hair.
Since red cells do not contain DNA, all of the genetic material in the blood sample was from the man. The authors sent it to a leading American forensics laboratory, which analysed it as if it were a normal sample of a man's blood."

Frumkin is founder of Nucleix, a Tel Aviv based company which makes much of a authentication technique for assessing whether DNA evidence been fabricated. Clearly he has an interest in selling this kit but this makes his research no less important.

John M Butler, leader of the Human Identity testing project at America's National Institute of Standards and Technology told the New York Times "he was impressed by how well the Frumkin team had fabricated DNA profiles but added, 'I think your average criminal wouldn't be able to something like that.'"

Butler has a touching faith in the honesty of America's police, one that I suggest we would be unwise to imitate here. Police officers in the past have been tempted to "fit up" those they believe guilty of a crime. It is easy to imagine how DNA might, in the future, be manufactured to gain a rock solid conviction against a person who was proving inconvenient to the authorities. We may chose to doubt that this will ever happen but legislators must allow for the possibility. Whatever the advances we celebrate today the actual anniversary of the Jeffrey's discovery – it is vital to absorb that DNA evidence is not fool proof.

Campaigners for a universal national DNA database, which would contain the samples of everyone in the country, will claim that Frumkin's techniques allow a court to know when DNA has been manufactured. True, but the important point is that genetic science is developing far faster than the comprehension of politicians. How long will it take before someone develops a means of manufacturing an individual's DNA without leaving a chemical trace? A few months ago the idea of artificially making a unique genetic profile was unthinkable; now a relatively simply process has blown this assumption out of the water.

There are now 800,000 innocent people – about a fifth of the total number of profiles – whose DNA is held on the British database. According to Jeffrey, this is a de facto breach of "their genetic privacy". The European court agrees but leaving the important principle of innocence aside, it is absolutely imperative that people begin to understand that our cavalier attitude to our genetic essence today, could lead to problems and abuse in the future. Look how far we have come in 25 years; imagine what someone's genetic profile will tell us about them in another 25 years.

Like so many complicated technical and moral issues, the use and abuse of DNA needs the engagement of legislators who have the credentials to square up to the new science. But look at both front benches, you won't find many scientists, or moral philosophers for that matter.

Source: The Guardian

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