This month, INTERPOL debuted I-Familia, the first global database designed to use DNA of relatives to identify missing persons or unidentified human remains around the world.
The move is significant at the international level, where it has been a trial to identify missing persons across country lines.
“Identifying missing persons globally has always been challenging due to the lack of data exchange procedures combined with the scientific complexity of statistical interpretation,” said Arnoud Kal, senior forensic scientist at the Netherlands Forensic Institute, one of the world’s foremost forensic laboratories.
Confirming a potential match at the international level is further complicated by the inherent genetic variation among populations across the world. However, I-Familia is unique in that it can automatically control for such differences, without requiring knowledge of the missing person’s genetic ancestry.
Families with missing relatives are invited to submit their DNA to INTERPOL to be stored in I-Familia’s dedicated database—which is held separately from any criminal database. To further protect individuals, INTERPOL said no nominal data will be attached to each profile, which is submitted in the form of an alphanumerical code.
“We believe the development by INTERPOL of I-Familia opens up new opportunities for member countries that will positively impact the effectiveness of international missing person investigations,” said Kal.
I-Familia on Bonaparte, a DNA matching software developed by Dutch company Smart Research. Bonaparte uses advanced statistical algorithms to calculate the probability of a match compared against an interpretation table. The software can perform millions of calculations in a very short time.
With the platform providing standardized guidelines on what constitutes a match, the software result is interpreted by forensic DNA experts at the INTERPOL General Secretariat. In the event of a match, notifications are sent to the countries that supplied the DNA profile from the unidentified body and the family, respectively. Further checks, including dental records and personal belongings if possible, are then carried out to confirm the potential match.
Every year, the trail runs cold on tens of thousands of missing persons. In 2020, for example, the INTERPOL General Secretariat issued over 12,000 active Yellow Notices, or international police alerts for missing persons.
“All countries have unsolved missing persons investigations, as well as human remains that cannot be identified using their national systems alone,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock. “I-Familia is a humanitarian tool which, enabled by INTERPOL’s global reach, opens up vast new possibilities to identify missing persons and to provide families with answers.”
With advanced DNA techniques and cutting-edge research, I-Familia has the ability to open up borders and provide answers to families that have been waiting years, or even decades.
Photo: Complex calculations are required to confirm a match because biological relatives share differing percentages of the DNA. This complexity is magnified when undertaken at the international level. Credit: INTERPOL