Advertisement

We all put wear and tear on our DNA. Although we are born with a certain highly unique genetic code, the things we do—from diet to exercise, alcohol to smoking—cause methylation changes at our very fundamental biological core. Such DNA methylation has been the focus of countless health-focused scientific investigations.

The use of DNA testing for age determinations has been a key epigenetic pursuit, as previously profiled in Forensic Magazine starting in 2015.

Now a team including Bram Bekaert from the Belgium’s KU Leuven are assessing the ethical and legal implications of DNA forensic science of the very near future, as outlined in latest issue of Trends in Genetics, a Cell Press publication.

“The use of DNA methylation biomarkers for age estimation may reveal a broader range of health-related information about the sample source,” they write. “The existing legal frameworks that regulate the use of DNA analysis for forensic purposes may not adequately address the privacy concerns associated with using emerging epigenetic biomarkers.”

Bekaert and his team demonstrated three years ago that blood and teeth samples could accurately predict a suspect’s age.

Now, further methylation changes have been understood to correlate not to just aging effects—but also to other oxidative stress and genetic damage.

These factors include the development of cancers like chronic lymphocytic leukemia, diet, physical activity and the usage of alcohol and drugs and tobacco, according to the paper. Post-traumatic stress disorder, hyperarousal, lung performance, cognition and grip strength, and neural integrity are all also wrapped up in our DNA as we use our bodies, according to the scientists.

It could even include socioeconomic status, based on the stressors, they write.

The concern, they contend, is that innocent bystanders in addition to potential perpetrators could lose privacy protections. Phenotyping could mislead police investigations—like if the genetic changes showed a smoker, but the real criminal was not one, for instance.

Their suggestion: all methylation biomarkers tied up with aging and oxidation could be collected. But detectives will only be given access to strictly-limited factors. Predicted age could be imparted to the authorities—but not any other unintended findings. 

“In the view of current development in the field of forensic epigenetics, revising the adequacy of current regulatory approaches towards the DNA analysis based on the coding/noncoding area distinction is recommended,” they write. “Using epigenetic biomarkers could reveal a broad range of health and lifestyle-related information, therefore it is necessary to develop adequate safeguards to protect the privacy of the individuals under scrutiny.”

Traditional DNA databases, like CODIS, focus on non-coding regions of the genome. But some studies, like a Stanford exploration last spring, show that even 13 loci can carry more information than originally believed.

Advertisement
Advertisement