Next Generation Sequencing for Forensics
I was wrong. And I was wrong pretty often. I wasn’t the only one; lots of us were out there saying it. Many of us were basing our arguments for expanded databases on it while in official office, under the color of governmental authority. We believed it at the time, and it was a fair basis for argument given what we knew at the time and our view of the future. But those days are over.
The days of arguing that, “We are only looking at these 13 “non-coding” loci.” or, “We can’t and won’t look at anything physical about you etc...” are over. You can’t look at the advent of next generation DNA sequencing, the speed at which the technology is advancing, and the rate at which the cost is dropping and—with any intellectual honesty—suggest that the forensic use of DNA is going to continue with blinders to anything phenotypic.
Now if you read this column, even occasionally, you can probably guess that the conclusion of this piece won’t be a suggestion that we should stop the pursuit of opportunities presented to us by next gen sequencing. I’ve never met a forensic DNA application I didn’t like and the ability to perform DNA analysis better, faster, and cheaper has always lead to a greater protection of victims and the innocent alike. But I would suggest that, as we move forward, we need to do so with the recognition that some of the issues and objections the law enforcement/forensic community faced with previous methods of DNA analysis may pale in comparison to objections we will face moving forward.
Like every previous advancement in DNA technology, there will be legislative, admissibility, constitutional, and public perception issues. But whatever our previous responses were for the specific changes in technology (the new PCR technique) or application (extending databases to include arrestees), our arguments were always supported by the broader over-arching argument that we weren’t even looking into these other areas of the human genome. With NGS we will be doing just that. In the limited information and material on sequencing and forensics, the selling point for the application is just how much information we can glean whereas before, we always argued how little we wanted too. The fact that it is getting faster and cheaper is a bonus.
Whether we are suggesting NGS is a better, cheaper way of getting to the 13 (now 20) core CODIS loci or that gene expression for skin color or eye color is a cost beneficial tool for law enforcement, we as a community need to own the argument in its full and fair context from the beginning.
We only need to look at the debacle that is the national scope—or lack thereof—of our familial searching policies to find a harbinger of things to come. The ill-conceived and uninformed objections to familial searching to fight crime are based on the fact that we are doing more with the 13 core loci than we promised. Objections like, “All family members will become suspects,” as ridiculous as they are, gain traction with the uneducated. Years after the FBI issued its memo essentially allowing for familial or close match searching on a state by state basis, some of those states prohibited the use of an amazingly important tool due to a lack of “direction” from the Bureau. That wasn’t true. States like Michigan just got it wrong because of a lack of leadership on the issue and blamed the Bureau. When it appeared that the relative of a murderer from Florida might be in the Michigan database, Michigan officials as high as the Governor’s office refused to allow the Y-STR testing that would confirm the investigative lead because of “lack of guidance” from the FBI. *
We could easily fail to realize the benefits of sequencing as quickly as we should if, as a community, we don’t recognize the concerns that sequencing presents to those who have never trusted government’s possession of their genetic identity. As NGS emerges as a technology readily applicable to forensics, we will only leverage its benefits to solve crime and prevent victimization to the extent that we can pave the way for its adoption through solid education and advocacy.
*Note: To its credit, the great state of Michigan under new leadership and continued advocacy by the laboratory and law enforcement recently did perform the Y-STR test at Florida’s request. The results did not reveal a connection between the inmate in their system and the unidentified murderer in from Florida. An important step in the investigation nonetheless.
Chris Asplen is President of Asplen and Associates, LLC. He consults with local, state, federal, and international governments on the use of forensic DNA technology. firstname.lastname@example.org