Feeds

Forensics reaches into the future

How far should we let the DNA database go?

Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction

Familial searching may indeed be one technology which will help satisfy Blair's ambitions for an all-encompassing DNA repository. It means that if authorities turn up a DNA profile from a crime scene and run it on the database, it's not a wasted enterprise if they don't turn up an exact match. Though our DNA fingerprint is effectively unique, it shares similarities with blood relatives'.

The FSS added familial searches to its armoury this year, along with DNAboost, a less controversial procedure which gives forensic scientists stronger tools at the other end of the DNA profile: the crime scene. Rather than an insufficiently enormous database, difficulty getting good samples from a crime scene is often the reason forensics draw a blank. DNA may be mixed from several individuals or have degraded over time.

DNAboost is a computer program the FSS developed inhouse which turns the problem of poor sample on its head. FSS consultant forensic scientist Dr Tim Clayton, who works with DNAboost, told us the lateral thinking at its foundation is "beautifully simple, like all the best ideas".

It works by turning the database search into a process of elimination, so rather than looking for a match, it compares the sample's DNA fingerprint to every entry in the NDNAD and ranks them for similarity. A lot of the time it ends up finding the person they're looking for, and we learned that there are already several active prosecutions which used DNAboost as part of the investigation.

It's not an evidence-building tool then, but an investigatory one, and so part of the mission creep which Alec Jeffreys fears. At the EPSRC event in March it was clear that that is the future of forensics technologies, however.

Improvements in current techniques are perhaps the best hope civil libertarians have to stymie further expansion of the NDNAD. So-called "lab-on-a-chip" analysis looks set to revolutionise collection and testing of crime scene samples. The "chips" at the centre of the putative devices are not silicon microchips, rather pieces of plastic an inch or so across with drilled capillaries. The chemicals needed for DNA analysis can be controlled using the capillary design, putting the power of DNA analysis in the hands of scene of crime officers.

The field is moving rapidly, and the research councils are keen to fund projects as the designs migrate from academic research into working prototypes. The EPSRC gave £721,000 to lab-on-a-chip efforts at the University of Hull, which expects to begin field trials of a device within two years. Their machine will aim to detect and separate out DNA ready for fingerprinting in double quick time.

The final frontier

Without more oversight, few people we spoke to see an end to the NDNAD's mission creep. It is only a matter of time before DNA sequencing is both fast and cheap enough for entire genomes to be mapped to order.

TheX Prize Foundation, which drove the race for the first commercial space flight, has already laid down the gauntlet by offering $10m for the first team to sequence 100 genomes in 10 days. The billionaires reckon the achievement will herald a new era of personalised medicine and exotic targeted therapies.

The argument for whole genome forensics is sure to follow. Cast-iron evidence will be the call; cases have been lost because of the small chance of a false positive match with DNA fingerprinting. The Home Office hangs on to DNA samples once it has fingerprinted them already, so anyone who develops the technology to sequence them could have a fat government contract awaiting them too - 3 million-plus samples await. ®

Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction

More from The Register

next story
This time it's 'Personal': new Office 365 sub covers just two devices
Redmond also brings Office into Google's back yard
Batten down the hatches, Ubuntu 14.04 LTS due in TWO DAYS
Admins dab straining server brows in advance of Trusty Tahr's long-term support landing
Microsoft lobs pre-release Windows Phone 8.1 at devs who dare
App makers can load it before anyone else, but if they do they're stuck with it
Half of Twitter's 'active users' are SILENT STALKERS
Nearly 50% have NEVER tweeted a word
Oh no, Joe: WinPhone users already griping over 8.1 mega-update
Hang on. Which bit of Developer Preview don't you understand?
Internet-of-stuff startup dumps NoSQL for ... SQL?
NoSQL taste great at first but lacks proper nutrients, says startup cloud whiz
Windows 8.1, which you probably haven't upgraded to yet, ALREADY OBSOLETE
Pre-Update versions of new Windows version will no longer support patches
Microsoft TIER SMEAR changes app prices whether devs ask or not
Some go up, some go down, Redmond goes silent
Red Hat to ship RHEL 7 release candidate with a taste of container tech
Grab 'near-final' version of next Enterprise Linux next week
prev story

Whitepapers

Designing a defence for mobile apps
In this whitepaper learn the various considerations for defending mobile applications; from the mobile application architecture itself to the myriad testing technologies needed to properly assess mobile applications risk.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.
Five 3D headsets to be won!
We were so impressed by the Durovis Dive headset we’ve asked the company to give some away to Reg readers.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Securing web applications made simple and scalable
In this whitepaper learn how automated security testing can provide a simple and scalable way to protect your web applications.