The legacy of DNA profiling

2014 sees the thirtieth anniversary of the invention of DNA profiling by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys at the University of Leicester.  As a prelude to the celebrations of this achievement, Sir Alec, Dr Turi King (Department of Genetics) and Dr John Bond OBE (Department of Chemistry) met to discuss the legacy for the world of this fantastic advance in science.  

Sir Alec reprised how, in 1984, he suddenly realised that the areas of the DNA molecule he was studying showed great variation between different people and that this might be a way of identifying people, based on variations in their DNA profile.  This discovery by Sir Alec was quickly seized upon by the police and used to solve a double murder in Leicestershire.

Perhaps surprisingly for the police, this new forensic discipline proved that their main suspect was not the offender, the real culprit being later identified also by DNA profiling. For Sir Alec though, the most satisfaction came from his involvement with a case of disputed parentage that threatened the son of a family with deportation. When the power of this technology was realised by the Home Office, the case for deportation was dropped and the look of relief on the face of the mother was reward enough for Sir Alec. Every case that involves DNA profiling is important and can be life changing for those involved.

Since those early days, the use of DNA profiling as a means of solving crime has developed far beyond what even Sir Alec might ever have imagined in 1984. The first dedicated forensic DNA laboratory was set up in the UK by the Forensic Science Service in 1987 and then DNA profiling really became a mainstay of every day crime fighting with the setting up of the UK National DNA Database in 1995. This was the first criminal justice DNA database in the world and made DNA profiling, along with fingerprints, the most used method of solving crime with forensic science.

Like fingerprints, DNA profiling provides evidence of identification in that it not only provides evidence for the police to put to a suspect (such as a drop of blood found beside a broken window) but also gives the police the name of the person they need to question. With the advent of improvements in this technology to enable profiles to be obtained from ever smaller and smaller amounts of material, DNA profiling is now used routinely to solve volume crimes, such as burglary and vehicle offences, as well as serious and violent crime. Every day throughout the world, DNA databases are producing thousands of matches of material recovered from crime scenes to the names of persons the police should be questioning.

As well as this use for criminal justice, DNA profiling has recently been instrumental in identifying the remains of King Richard III by the University of Leicester. Indeed, the linking of the recovered remains found in a car park in Leicester to a direct living descendent of Richard III is something that Sir Alec sees as a real benefit from his discovery. The use of DNA to assist in genealogical mapping of human evolution is, for Sir Alec, just as important and exciting as its use in criminal justice. As DNA technology continues to progress, advances such as next generation sequencing offer exciting prospects for the expanded use of this technology in a host of different disciplines.

However, Sir Alec issues a word of caution in that people’s expectations of what DNA profiling can achieve run the risk of exceeding what is realistically possible. As with all scientific advances, it is important to maintain a sense of perspective and public responsibility when moving forward the boundaries of knowledge, as Sir Alec did quite remarkably on that memorable day back in 1984.

 

Dr John Bond is Senior Lecturer in Forensic Sciences at the University of Leicester.

Explore the Legacy of Leicester project.

 

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