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Forensics wield new DNA weapon

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The Forensic Science Service (FSS) is piloting a DNA technique it says could lead to countless unsolved criminal investigations being reopened.

The technique has already been useful in current investigations numbering in double figures, The Register has learned.

DNAboost is a piece of software which it's hoped will help forensics interpret genetic sequences from mixed samples. Incidents where minimal cell fragments are collected or have been degraded present difficulties distinguishing between individuals.

The FSS says its tests on DNAboost have shown it could improve DNA profile yield by as much as 40 per cent, and detection rates by 15 per cent. The possibility is for thousands of "cold" cases being supplied with new leads, the FSS reckons. DNAboost-resolved samples could identify multiple users of a weapon in more cases, for example.

DNA manager Paul Hackett said: "We've been able to demonstrate an increased rate of interpretation even in those areas that have proved traditionally most difficult – fragments of cellular submissions."

The technology behind DNAboost is based on a simple idea. Rather than compare a mixed sample to every profile in a database, the DNAboost algorithm turns the problem on its head, turning it into a process of elimination. There are 20 data points in a DNA profile, for a sample from more than one individual trials showed the program would quickly return the right number of matching profiles.

FSS consultant forensic scientist Dr Tim Clayton, who works with DNAboost, described the lateral thinking at its foundation as "beautifully simple, like all the best ideas".

Despite this apparent simplicity, the FSS is claiming a world first on the application.

DNA boost is being trialled by the FSS for four police forces on their local DNA repositories: West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Northumbria and Humberside.

A government-owned limited company, the FSS hopes to roll out DNAboost to all of its police force customers. The service is in negotiations with the Home Office for access to the National DNA Database, the world's largest database of human DNA profiles.

The new technique does nothing to broaden the reach of the National DNA Database, which civil liberties groups criticise for retaining DNA from individuals who have never been charged or prosecuted. If anything it may help quieten calls within government and law enforcement for the database to be expanded, as current data should be better utilised. ®

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