New technology has led to breakthroughs in practically every aspect of our lives since the dawn of the industrial revolution. In nearly every case, it’s for the betterment, in some way, of society. (And yet, I like my music best when it’s acoustic, unprocessed, and barely produced at all.) Take a listen to Song for Roy by the amazing Sam Bush (with help from Emmylou Harris) about his late bass player, Roy Huskey, Jr.
One of the more memorable technological advances in my lifetime came in the mid-1990s, when DNA testing/evidence became a very controversial part of our culture with a certain news event.
In the fifteen-or-so years since then, DNA evidence has gone from a very expensive, laborious, and suspect new technology to the gold standard for crime-scene evidence. Convictions have been both made and overturned solely based on new DNA evidence. After all, DNA is your genetic fingerprint, so unless you’ve got an identical twin, there’s nobody out there with the same DNA as you.
But a recent study showed that — just as the rise in computers brought along hackers — DNA evidence can now be completely fabricated! From this recently published article, here’s a bit from their abstract, with my emphasis in bold.
DNA evidence is key to the conviction or exoneration of suspects of various types of crime, from theft to rape and murder. However, the disturbing possibility that DNA evidence can be faked has been overlooked. It turns out that standard molecular biology techniques such as PCR, molecular cloning, and recently developed whole genome amplification (WGA), enable anyone with basic equipment and know-how to produce practically unlimited amounts of in vitro synthesized (artificial) DNA with any desired genetic profile. This artificial DNA can then be applied to surfaces of objects or incorporated into genuine human tissues and planted in crime scenes. Here we show that the current forensic procedure fails to distinguish between such samples of blood, saliva, and touched surfaces with artificial DNA, and corresponding samples with in vivo generated (natural) DNA. Furthermore, genotyping of both artificial and natural samples with Profiler Plus® yielded full profiles with no anomalies.
Now, most people haven’t perfected this technique, and don’t have unlimited access to the equipment necessary to fake such DNA evidence. And yes, according to the NY Times, the authors of this paper want to sell their new technology/technique that can distinguish between real and fake DNA. But this is real, and they determine that not only can all current tests not distinguish between real and fake DNA, but that:
- anyone with a biology major has the know-how to do this,
- the equipment needed can be found in many standard biology research labs,
- and only a small initial sample of DNA — an eyelash, a single drop of blood, etc. — is required to produce all the artificial DNA you like.
The moral of this story? I’m going to be very careful next time before I piss off any biology majors…