DNA phenotyping to reveal ancestry eye colour

Written by Dan Box, Crime reporter for The Australian 

Australian police will soon be able to use DNA technology that predicts a suspect’s ancestry and the colour of their eyes or hair, and can potentially generate a computer image of their face.

The new science of DNA pheno­typing has the potential to revolutionise criminal investigations. It has already been used by US police to recreate the faces of a triple-murder suspect and of a ­victim whose headless body was discovered in 1988.

While DNA is already a mainstay of criminal investigations, police rely largely on samples taken from a crime scene matching profiles held on a ­national ­database of known ­offenders, or taken from a suspect.

Phenotyping, which analyses known markers in the genetic ­material we inherit from our parents, means that even with no DNA match, detectives can base their investigation on what they expect a suspect would look like.

In March, the NSW Forensic & Analytical ­Science Service, which analyses DNA for the state’s police, held a week-long test of the technology for law-enforcement and government agencies across the country, including the Australian Defence Force.

Sharon Neville, the deputy ­director of criminalistics for NSW Health Pathology, said: “We’re certainly very interested in the technology. There’s no question that it’s going to be coming on board. Everyone wants to offer it for their police service and their justice system.”

The Australian Federal Police is understood to be the closest of the police forces to introducing the technique, potentially within months, although it has declined requests to comment.

The University of Canberra ­secured funding in June to ­develop a laboratory that will use DNA to determine a person’s geographic ancestry, and plans to offer the service to police from next year. “It’s a way of narrowing a large pool of suspects,” said ­associate professor Dennis McNevin.

“If the police have got no leads and we can say to an ­investigator, ‘Well, the person you are looking for is likely to be Euro­pean’, you’re narrowing the pool.”

Ancestry analysis was used by investigators following the 2004 Madrid bombings and in the British investigation of a serial burglar and rapist known as the Night Stalker, who was arrested in 2009.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” Professor McNevin said. The use of DNA phenotyping to predict a suspect’s eye and hair colour was already robust, he said, and “the great hope is that we’ll be able to build a picture of someone’s face”.

Earlier this year, US police used phenotyping to predict the face of a suspect in an unsolved 1984 ­triple-killing. The technol­ogy has also been used to generate a computer image of the face of a murdered woman, whose headless body was found in Texas in 1988. Detectives initially believed the woman was white, but she was subsequently found to have been of Asian ­descent.

The forensic use of DNA, ­developed in Britain in 1984, has given Australian police the opportunity to revisit thousands of ­unsolved crimes.

NSW authorities have built up an archive of about 12,500 specimens of blood and body fluid ­recovered from crime scenes ­before DNA was introduced about 2001.

Using the new technology to review these exhibits, a dedicated Cold Case Justice Project established within the NSW Police Force helped convict at least three murderers and 27 sex ­offenders during its four years of operation.

Among these offenders identified through their DNA was ­serial child rapist Richard Crowe, who assaulted five girls in Sydney from 1989 to 1991 but whose crimes had not been linked at the time.

Police are also trying to identify another serial sex offender who they have linked to 27 attacks across the city’s eastern suburbs between 1985 and 2001.

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