By Charles Choi
UPI Science News
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NEW YORK, July 31 (UPI) -- Even if the only evidence forensic
analysts can pull from a crime scene is a fingerprint smudged beyond
recognition, a new technique developed by Canadian scientists soon could
harvest enough DNA from the print to produce a genetic identity.
The novel system can extract DNA in only 15 minutes, even if a print
has been stored for a year. Scientists expect the invention to help
crime-fighters solve mysteries, and already are in talks with the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police. In addition, researchers predict the technology
could be at least twice as cheap as existing DNA collection methods.
"If you wanted to use blood as a source of DNA, you have fear of
contamination, people who don't want to give it, storage issues, and you
have to sign a lot of paperwork to get it," research scientist Maria
Viaznikova of the Ottawa University Heart Institute in Canada told
United Press International. "We can now have DNA reliably and simply
with our method."
Viaznikova said her team's method consistently yields 10 billionths
of a gram of DNA, on average, from a single fingerprint. The findings
were revealed at the American Society for Microbiology's nanotechnology
conference in New York earlier this month. Although 10 "nanograms" might
not sound like much, for DNA analysis, even 0.1 nanogram is enough,
Viaznikova said. "Scientists try not to use less than 5 to 10 nanograms,
so this is fine."
She said forensic scientists have known for about five years that
fingerprints contain DNA. However, commonly used extraction techniques
need several hours or even days of lab work. "We can do it in 15
minutes," she added.
The new extraction technique is under patent. When compared with
existing methods, "it is at least as twice less expensive, maybe more,"
The most immediate application such a technique could find is with
forensics, said molecular biologist Margaret Wallace of John Jay College
in New York and one-time DNA analyst for the city's chief medical
"It could save a lot of time, particularly given we have this huge
backlog on DNA that needs to be analyzed," Wallace told UPI. "There are
hundreds of thousands of samples that need to be looked at now."
Wallace still wants to know how well the process works on
fingerprints gleaned from a variety of surfaces and kept in a variety of
temperature and humidity conditions. "It's also possible that some
people leave more DNA in their prints than others," she said.
Because the method is so simple and cheap, with far less overhead
required than needle-based DNA sampling, experts say this could help
make DNA gathering a commonplace activity -- thereby also raising
"DNA is unique, extremely revealing about you and your family
members," privacy specialist Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties
Union in Washington, D.C., told UPI. "This advance really highlights the
need for laws to protect the privacy in the face of these kinds of
Stanley said because genetics experts have told him it inevitably
will become easier to test DNA, "we need legal frameworks to figure out
how to protect privacy in the face of this." For example, silicone chips
from biophysicist Stephen Quake's lab at the California Institute of
Technology, in Pasadena, could in the next 10 years sequence an entire
person's genetic code cheaply and in a few days, he noted.
"I don't think anybody objects to samples from crime scenes. I think
using DNA to catch murderers is a fine thing," Stanley said. "But we
need to be cognizant of greater implications. We're going to be facing
issues about how to keep DNA private from lawyers, governments,
insurance companies, even nosy neighbors. It raises issues of employment
discrimination, because employers have a natural incentive to hire
healthy workers, and always have an incentive to discriminate against
you by DNA, as long as health insurance is provided by the workplace."
He added: "Or think about schoolchildren checking out each other's
genetic profiles, or having profiles posted on the Internet. The fact
is, there are heavy incentives to collect this information."
Electronic Frontier Foundation staff technologist Dan Moniz said he
thinks the technique could be helpful to nab crooks, but he wonders
about further implications in law.
"People already have fingerprints taken of them. Will it just become
part of the standard booking procedure? Will you be notified that
they're taking DNA? Can you refuse to give fingerprints if you don't
want DNA taken?" he asked.
Moniz told UPI there are four directions he would like to see the
question of DNA collection from prints go. "First, I want to know who's
using this technology. I want to be notified right up front, at the
police department, hospital, HMO, anything. No surreptitious
extraction," he said.
"I should have a right of refusal and I should receive no special
treatment if I do refuse it," he continued. "Finally, I should have a
clear statement of who has full control of it, to make sure it does not
get (contracted) out."
Moniz said the problems of outsourcing the collection of genetic
information is a violation of privacy that goes beyond the potential for
discrimination. "Will you get marketed on a genetic level? To be
somewhat facetious, is this a new piece of the puzzle of the already
omni-present spam about penile enhancement?"
Although the method "can be used for DNA identification for sure,"
Viaznikova said -- people have stretches of inactive "junk DNA" whose
patterns are as unique to them as their fingerprints -- she added that
her group also has a more ambitious goal for their method: extracting
enough undamaged DNA from fingerprints to study the active DNA that
actually drive survival.
"Our interest is in the heart. If a patient goes to a doctor, in
future perhaps the doctor can identify if a person has some kind of gene
that can one day lead to heart failure," Viaznikova said. "We think we
can use our technique for DNA profiling. It's not proved yet, but we're
going to try and do it."
© 2001-2003 United Press International
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