Good morning all,
In lab this past week, we considered some of the aspects of personalized genetic testing, including the ability to estimate one's genetic heritage and family history through evaluation of genetic dissimilarities to others. Fresh on the heels of that discussion is another news report of more decades-old crimes being solved by similar kinds of genetic comparisons.
When a person offers their genetic information to 23andMe, Ancestry.com, or other of the genetic history services, their DNA sequence and its identified markers are entered into massive databases. It is only against these databases that useful comparisons can be made - we can't learn much about our genetic history by comparing our DNA to that of one or two others.
Remember that these DNA sequences can be compared for similarities and dissimilarities, and they also can be clustered into haplotypes - groups that share some common ancestry. Haplotypes are the basis for construction of genetic pedigrees, or genetic 'family trees'.
How can we solve crimes using this information? Imagine that 5 or 10% of the population of a city have their DNA stored in one of these databases. If a crime (new or old) is committed, investigators can
1) collect DNA evidence from a crime scene (easy to do, as we leave hair and cells everywhere we go)
2) compare the DNA from the crime scene to that of the collected database
3) Evaluate whether there is a direct DNA match to someone in the database. If so, that person may be the culprit! Well, if only 10% of a population has been genetically profiled, the odds of that are low. It's also likely that that people who commit crimes are not likely to freely offer their DNA to public databases.
4) But, we all have relatives. Investigators can often find similarities between the DNA collected at a crime scene, and the DNA of some family group within a database. Then, they look at the personal and family backgrounds of just those individuals. Are any of those people in the DNA database related to someone who has committed other crimes, and has a criminal history already in the police records?
This represents a very powerful way to quickly sort through a lot of information. One the one hand is a large database of genetic information. On the other hand is a large database of police records of crimes and criminals. Finding out specifically where they intersect is the key, and such a comparison often produces leads to a small number of individuals as suspects.
5) Suspects can then be watched/followed, and their DNA then sampled (for example, by collecting from the trash a drinking cup they had used). If this new DNA sample matches that collected at the crime scene, the crime may be solved.
It is exactly these methods which are being used in many cases, both new and old. Notice that they rely very heavily on personal genetic data, and, importantly, notice that suspects can be identified even if they don't offer their own DNA, as long as someone related to them already has. This is a challenge for the courts, too - what is an individual's right to privacy and protection from suspicion when your relatives implicate you, just by being related?
It's exciting to think of the possibilities for learning about one's self through DNA. It's equally important to remember that these are discoveries that we cannot make on our own - we are relying upon public and commercial databases, that can be used in ways we may not have intended or not even thought about. Science is about progress - new ideas, information, and abilities. Even as we reap the benefits of these advances, it is important that, as a society, we stay abreast of the social and ethical challenges that come with them.
Have a great weekend -
When we met for our first class, I ave you a survey asking about some of the science topics that you find interesting, and the idea of 'personalized genetics' came up in a number of your responses. We'll tackle aspects of this issue several times this semester.
Today, I am passing along a link to a news article about the use of unexpected sharing of personalized genetic databases with law enforcement agencies. While there is the potential for much good to come from this sort of exchange, it also raises some concerns, especially as it does not align with the reason that most people seek out their genetic background. This problem will be good fodder for our discussions...
Have a great weekend -
Good morning all,
I'm passing along here a link to a recent news article about advanced technology for the analysis of DNA, and its use in fighting crime. This type of instrument is made possible through the application of advanced electronics and engineering to human biology, a trend that is only going to increase over time. While these devices are exciting and interesting, remember also that there is risk associated with their use, in the collection/banking of personal data, and the need to safeguard one's privacy.
I will occasionally pass along articles of this type during the semester. My purpose in doing so is to help you to become more aware of topics at the interface of biology and society, and also to help you assess how you obtain your science and health news.
Those of us working in science obtain our scientific news, quite often, directly from the original sources: the people conducting the studies and reporting the results. They publish their findings in science journals, or present them at conferences.
Most people do not obtain their news directly, but hear news via secondary sources, such as news releases from scientific organizations, or news stories from the major news outlets. These secondary reports often are then carried by tertiary outlets (smaller/other reporting sources).
Along the way from source to audience, science news is normally distilled (a lot) - much of the detail is excluded or simplified, and the reports often are boiled-down to singular take-home messages, which may (or may not) be good representations of the original work.
When you browse the links that I will forward, or when you access science and health news on your own, I'd encourage you to delve a little bit deeper into them, to read more than just the summaries, and to follow links back to original sources when possible. I'd also encourage you to think a little about the translation of news from source to consumer, and the reputability of the news outlets that you use.
You will not be formally tested on any of the material in the news stories that I will send you, but I do hope that the material in them makes its way into our classroom conversations.
This first link is from the New York Times, which provides one of the best (e.g., best funded and most reliable) secondary sources of science and health news. They do limit access to only a handful of free articles each month, so I will use them sparingly.
Have a great weekend -