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Your DNA? Thanks but no thanks

Zafar Anjum | Aug. 19, 2009
So far DNA tests have been accepted as the last words in forensic evidence to establish identities. Not any more.

DNA tests have become standard procedure to establish identities of people. To brush up your high school biology, deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms and some viruses. This definition is from Wikipedia and you can find more there on this basic component of life.

DNA tests are especially useful when police are faced with the task of identifying dead unidentifiable criminals and terrorists. For instance, when the recent Jakarta blasts took place, the police tried to establish the identity of the suicide bombers through DNA tests.

Jakarta blastsIt turned out that the two terrorists who were suspected to be the ones to have carried out the bombings were in fact not the ones who had died in the blasts, thanks to the DNA testing. So the police kept on searching for the actual culprits and weeks later shot dead another man who looked like the mastermind who the security agency had deemed to have arranged the bombing. But this too was a red herring and so the hunt goes. Its a long story.

Take another example. Last year, when the 26/11 terrorist strike maimed Mumbai in India, Pakistan demanded DNA samples of the gunned-down terrorists to establish Indias claim that the attackers were indeed from Pakistan. As far as I know, the DNA samples were never given to Pakistan, not even as benefit of doubt, while India till date remains insistent that the strikers were from Pakistan. All evidence suggests they indeed were. The lone surviving terrorist, Ajmal Kasab, has now admitted that he is from Pakistan and was trained there. But the two countries are still trading charges against each other. DNA tests could have settled the dispute.

The point is that so far DNA tests have been accepted as the last words in forensic evidence to establish identities. Not any more.

Engineer a crime scene

Now, an Israeli scientist has shown that DNA evidence can be doctored. Dr Frumkin, a founder of Nucleix, a company based in Tel Aviv that has developed a test to distinguish real DNA samples from fake ones, showed that if they had access to a DNA profile in a database, they could construct a DNA sample to match that profile without obtaining any tissue from that person.

Using their process, the scientists fabricated blood and saliva samples containing DNA from a person other than the donor.

You can just engineer a crime scene, said Dr Dan Frumkin, lead author of the paper, published online by the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics. Any biology undergraduate could perform this.

 

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